Never wrong for long

It was an on­line utopian vi­sion: an en­cy­clo­pe­dia for the peo­ple, by the peo­ple. But eight years af­ter its cre­ation, Wikipedia is plagued by hoaxes, board­room re­bel­lion and fi­nan­cial crises, writes Stephen Fo­ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IT felt like half a na­tion was pump­ing the air and singing along to Born to Run as the old rab­ble-rouser Bruce Spring­steen blew through his half-time set at this month’s Su­per­bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida. For a tech-savvy younger gen­er­a­tion, cu­ri­ous as to why some­one who looked like their dad had just jumped on to a pi­ano, an ob­vi­ous re­sponse would have been to reach for the com­puter and head to Wikipedia. Ex­cept that they’d have drawn a blank. ‘‘ Bruce Spring­steen. This guy kinda sucks.’’ That was it. A su­per­star’s en­tire his­tory and discog­ra­phy had been wiped, an en­cy­clo­pe­dia page re­placed with a blog­ger’s vent­ing. Things righted them­selves, of course, and quickly. Be­fore the fi­nal bars of Glory Days , one of Wikipedia’s grown-ups had locked anony­mous users out of the edit­ing process and the Boss had re­turned to form. This has been Wikipedia’s or­gan­is­ing prin­ci­ple: it is never wrong for long.

Wikipedia was a half-crazed vi­sion when it was launched in Jan­uary 2001. At a time when in­ter­net sages were dis­cussing how much Bri­tan­nica could get away with charg­ing for a dig­i­tal ver­sion of its dusty tome, here was an at­tempt to cre­ate an even big­ger repos­i­tory for hu­man knowl­edge, all of it writ­ten and edited — from scratch — by ab­so­lutely any­one with a bit of time.

Now it is one of the 10 most-vis­ited sites on the web. Should you need to set­tle a bar-room row about the scorer of the equaliser in the 1993 FA Cup fi­nal, it is to Wikipedia that you in­stinc­tively turn. In­creas­ingly, when you want to find out the lat­est facts on a de­vel­op­ing news story, Wikipedi­ans are up­dat­ing the site in real time.

As long as you have a crit­i­cal eye, it can­not be beaten for the bare-bones facts on any sub­ject you can think of. As a re­sult, it is a god­send for stressed re­searchers and idle stu­dents. One New York Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sor says he has given up try­ing to pre­vent his charges from cit­ing Wikipedia as a source in their es­says. In­stead, he now checks the ac­cu­racy of its en­tries on the sub­jects he teaches.

The site has more than jus­ti­fied its founders’ faith in the wis­dom of crowds. But it has also shown that ev­ery crowd has its share of fools and knaves. Van­dal­ism and er­ror are en­demic, and it has of­ten driven users to the con­clu­sion that the only way to in­crease ac­cu­racy is to re­duce ac­cess.

The bat­tle over Spring­steen, played out over five min­utes on one of Wikipedia’s 12 mil­lion ar­ti­cles, was hardly unique. At any given mo­ment, there are hun­dreds of th­ese skir­mishes go­ing on. Hardly a week goes by without one of the more creative or sub­ver­sive ad­di­tions tak­ing flight, adding greatly to the gai­ety of ob­servers. For a month and a half, a Wikipedia page was re­port­ing that Mar­garet Thatcher was fic­ti­tious.

Barack Obama’s inau­gu­ra­tion day was the fi­nal straw for Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder and vi­sion­ary-in-chief, who de­clared that it was time to break with the tra­di­tion of any­thing goes. That was the day two se­nior se­na­tors, Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd, sparked a flurry of con­cern about their health when they left the inau­gu­ra­tion lunch on Capi­tol Hill; in Kennedy’s case, in an am­bu­lance af­ter a seizure. Any­one who reached for Wikipedia for the lat­est facts found that some­one had pre­ma­turely filled in Jan­uary 20, 2009 as the date of their deaths. The in­ci­dents prompted an­other round of un­for­giv­ing head­lines about Wikipedia’s ten­dency to err.

From now on, Wales pro­poses, edit­ing the bi­og­ra­phy of a liv­ing per­son will be a two-stage process; any­one can still make a re­vi­sion, but it will have to be flagged as ‘‘ ap­proved’’ by some­one higher up the Wikipedian food chain be­fore it goes live on the site.

But the very sug­ges­tion has stoked a mon­ster of a con­tro­versy among the faith­ful. Wikipedia is, af­ter all, the en­cy­clo­pe­dia writ­ten by the peo­ple, for the peo­ple. Wikipedi­ans are en­gaged in a con­stant fight to rid it not just of van­dal­ism, but of all opin­ion and con­tentious ma­te­rial, of any­thing that can­not be de­scribed as fact and sup­ported by a link to a recog­nised source.

To click ‘‘ edit’’ to muck in on an en­try, or ‘‘ his­tory’’ just to ex­am­ine the palimpsest on which it has been cre­ated, is like lop­ping off the top of an an­thill, re­veal­ing the ex­traor­di­nary in­dus­try in­side. It looks an­ar­chic, but it is gov­erned by a vast ar­ray of rules and con­ven­tions and ma­nip­u­lated by a hi­er­ar­chy of ed­i­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tors, elected to their posts on the ba­sis of their work. They wield sig­nif­i­cant power to delete re­vi­sions and whole ar­ti­cles, and to block users. Ev­ery sin­gle change to ev­ery sin­gle ar­ti­cle is recorded and can be de­bated. ‘‘ Edit wars’’ be­tween con­trib­u­tors who are push­ing com­pet­ing re­vi­sions are com­mon. The new plan for flagged re­vi­sions ex­tends an ex­ist­ing pol­icy that de­nies edit­ing rights to anony­mous users on the pages of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, a pol­icy in­tro­duced dur­ing the con­stant war against van­dal­ism to the pages of Tony Blair and Ge­orge W. Bush.

How big is the prob­lem? Reid Pried­horsky, who stud­ies Wikipedia and sim­i­lar so­cial projects at the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota, es­ti­mates that the chances of any one vis­i­tor see­ing a dam­aged Wikipedia page are about one in 140, as the av­er­age time it takes to re­pair dam­age is less than three min­utes.

How­ever, there are still more than 100,000 dam­aged pages at any given time, van­dal­ism ap­pears to be on the in­crease and it is im­pos­si­ble fully to mea­sure the scale of the prob­lem.

‘‘ It’s the mon­ster in the closet . . . How­ever, the most star­tling fact about Wikipedia re­mains how ac­cu­rate it is, not how in­ac­cu­rate,’’ Pried­horsky says.

What op­po­nents fear most from the new ‘‘ flagged re­vi­sions’’ rule is that it could put off a new gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers and ed­i­tors, slam­ming this ex­traor­di­nary global phe­nom­e­non into re­verse. It’s not some­thing that seems to worry Wales, a book­ish, bearded guy who de­scribes him­self as ‘‘ patho­log­i­cally op­ti­mistic’’.

Born in 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama, Wales made enough of a for­tune as an op­tions trader in Chicago to sup­port him­self for life. Sens­ing an­other pile to be made in Cal­i­for­nia as the dot­com bub­ble in­flated, he headed to Sil­i­con Val­ley to start Bomis, a com­pany that ran what he eu­phemisti­cally de­scribes as a ‘‘ male in­ter­est site’’. This first ven­ture in smut and soft porn was short-lived, though, as he alighted on the idea of cre­at­ing an on­line en­cy­clo­pe­dia.

Typ­i­cally, the facts are con­tentious, as a glance at the in­ter­minable his­tory of the Wikipedia en­try on Wikipedia will at­test. Wales shares the credit with Larry Sanger, a web­site ed­i­tor who also has an in­ter­est in phi­los­o­phy; but he shares it re­luc­tantly. The two have been in­volved in a long-run­ning dis­pute over ex­actly who came up with the idea for cre­at­ing a Wikipedia com­mu­nity. Wales sniffily high­lights how Sanger was in fact only hired help, em­ployed by Bomis to work on a pro­fes­sional on­line en­cy­clo­pe­dia called Nu­pe­dia, built on the tra­di­tional model of edit­ing by ex­perts. Wikipedia was con­ceived as a way of quickly build­ing Nu­pe­dia con­tent: wiki is Hawai­ian for quick.

Th­ese days, Sanger is the man be­hind Ci­ti­zendium, a new Nu­pe­dia that’s edited by a cadre of aca­demics ex­pert in their sub­jects, which he launched with fan­fare and not a few digs at Wales. But it has failed to take off, and has fewer than 10,000 ar­ti­cles al­most two years af­ter it was launched.

A more cred­i­ble chal­lenger is Google, whose ef­fort, Google Knol ( knol means a unit of knowl­edge, the com­pany has de­cided), is most use­ful for the time be­ing as fod­der for Sil­i­con Val­ley jokes. The search en­gine gi­ant pro­fesses it­self sat­is­fied with Knol’s first six months, how­ever, and it has grown to 100,000 ar­ti­cles in less time than Wikipedia man­aged.

It’s dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of th­ese other projects eclips­ing Wikipedia in the pop­u­lar imagination, un­less the mar­ket leader goes into some sort of self-in­duced melt­down, which is why Wales re­mains a piv­otal fig­ure.

As a kind of philoso­pher-in-chief, he con­tin­ues to dom­i­nate the or­gan­i­sa­tion, to steer its de­bates, to calm its col­lec­tive neu­roses.

Wales is a force-of-na­ture kind of guy, trav­el­ling the world ex­tolling the virtues of the open-source na­ture of the Wikipedia project. And yet the once ram­shackle Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion, the char­ity charged with guard­ing this great pub­lic re­source, is edg­ing to­wards a more pro­fes­sional struc­ture un­der its fe­ro­cious ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, for­mer Cana­dian jour­nal­ist Sue Gard­ner, who has been in situ since 2007. More than a few Sil­i­con Val­ley gos­sips have be­gun to spec­u­late about board­room in-fight­ing and about Wales’s re­la­tion­ship with the or­gan­i­sa­tion, par­tic­u­larly since blog­gers re­ported de­lays in hav­ing his board seat con­firmed at the end of last year.

At the very least, Gard­ner is try­ing to im­pose or­der on an ex­traor­di­nary bu­reau­cracy and to put the foun­da­tion on a firmer foot­ing so that it doesn’t re­quire seat-of-the-pants fundrais­ing ef­forts from Wales, who fronted an ap­peal to ‘‘ keep Wikipedia free’’ in De­cem­ber that brought in $ 6 mil­lion.

The aim is to keep Wikipedia free of ad­verts, even though the costs of its hunger for band­width are ris­ing ex­po­nen­tially as the site con­tin­ues to grow and the records of changes lengthen.

And, while the Wiki­me­dia Foun­da­tion has no for­mal role in de­cid­ing poli­cies within the Wikipedia com­mu­nity, it is watch­ing closely and with trep­i­da­tion. At to­day’s cross­roads, the sign­posts marked ‘‘ ac­cu­racy’’ and ‘‘ ac­cess’’ lead down very dif­fer­ent paths. The near-death ex­pe­ri­ences of Kennedy and Byrd do more than con­fuse the pub­lic and dis­tress their loved ones. They tar­nish the Wikipedia brand. In mon­e­tary terms, ‘‘ never wrong’’ is more valu­able than ‘‘ never wrong for long’’.

The In­de­pen­dent

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