Who’s Afraid Of Wikipedia?

Arguments about Wikipedia‘s value and authority will rage for quite a while, but it’s interesting to see where the lines are being drawn.

On the one had we’ve got a 12 year-old pointing out errors in Encyclopaedia Britannica (via Many2Many) and now on the other side we’ve got John Seigenthaler, a former editorial page editor at USA Today, piping mad about some libelous content in his Wikipedia biography page.

Now, I have to agree with Seigenthaler in as much as I would never want anybody to make such claims against me, and I’d probably consider my legal options in such a matter, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets a chuckle over the matter. I mean Seigenthaler is the founder of The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, after all.

It all sounds the same as the Attack of the Blogs story in November issue of Forbes Magazine. That story began ominously:

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.

But Forbes and Seigenthaler both conveniently ignore the fact that lies, libel and invective are common in other, older media. And Seigenthaler should know well the limitations of editorial authority over the millions of words published by hundreds of writers in a newspaper every day. Mistakes are made, and yes, counterfactual material is often slipped in. (Sadly, it’s also worth noting that real lynch mobs of the post-reconstruction South often enjoyed the support of their local newspapers.)

And unlike those old media, corrections are easy and quick, and in context with the original information. Take a look at how the Wikipedia entry addresses Seigenthaler’s complaints as an example.

Yes, the decision structure around these social applications is different from old media, but that doesn’t make it any more wrong or bad or dangerous. It is, perhaps, a comment on the obscurity of Seigenthaler’s biography that it went uncorrected for four months, but it’s also a comment on how responsive the system is that accommodated Seig’s corrections so quickly. Now, imagine how much Seigenthaler could contribute to Wikipedia. Imagine how much richer our online community could be with his participation?

And that’s what Seigenthaler and the Forbes article miss: the blogosphere and Wikipedia are built by those show up to the game. People and companies who ignore it do so at the peril, but there are many examples of success for those who participate.