By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Two cheers for the Wikipedia

Like many bloggers, Media Nation is fond of linking to the Wikipedia, the free, user-created and -maintained online encyclopedia. But I do wonder where some of this stuff comes from, and I try to give the items to which I link a critical scan to make sure they’re rooted in reality.

I’ve noticed that, increasingly, students are citing it the way those of an earlier generation would have cited the Encyclopedia Britannica. Generally, the information seems reasonable. But you never know.

So here is a cautionary tale: a column in USA Today by former Robert Kennedy aide John Siegenthaler, who says that, for 132 days, the Wikipedia’s entry on him included false information that he had once been a suspect in both Kennedy assassinations. Siegenthaler, understandably, calls the Wikipedia “a flawed and irresponsible research tool.”

Last July, NPR’s “On the Media” took a look at the Wikipedia. When co-host Bob Garfield asked New York University professor and wiki fan Clay Shirky about what happens to bogus material uploaded to the Wikipedia, Shirky responded with this:

There was actually a very interesting study done up at IBM in Cambridge around a project called History Flow that looked at the history of vandalism for highly contentious subjects on the Wikipedia, whether it was abortion or Islam or Microsoft, or any topic that got some group exercised. And what they found was that vandalism tended to last less than two minutes. People get e-mailed when a page is changed, so it’s not passive monitoring. There’s highly active monitoring around page changes, particularly for contentious pages, so that the vandalism is found and undone very quickly.

To which it now seems reasonable to add: Not always.

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1 Comment

  1. amusedbutinformedobserver

    Repairing vandalism on topics heavy on emotion is one thing. But other topics repeat urban myths; “factoids” that have taken on an air of truth because they are repeated so often. Example: The Kennedy family was behind the Herald-Traveler Corp’s loss of Channel 5, in the Herald entry. There is no substantiation for this and Wikpiedia’s entry attributes it to “many historians,” yet the lack of responsibile editing for such a throw-away line in an article chiefly on another topic means the reader simply assumes it is true. This sort of thing is repeated over and over and over. The wiki-blogger world is a world without editors, and largely without standards, yet the existence of editors and evolution of standards in what is decried as mainstream media were an evolution that had its Genesis in dissemination of information tainted by failure to adequately investigate or by bias and conflict of interests.

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