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
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’’.