A Thousand Eyes

The invaluable Wharton Business School site has just posted six new articles, the most interesting being “Can Wikipedia Survive Its Own Success?” The idea of the wiki, a text that everyone has an equal right to add to and edit, is one of those ideas that Web cognescenti find seductive while it bewilders everyone else. Michael Kinsley’s attempt to apply the many-hands concept to a Los Angeles Times editorial was a famous disaster that reaffirmed what many consumers of mainstream media already believed: If you open up a text to be edited by thousands of people, in short order they’ll turn it into porn.

Wharton describes recent embarassments on Wikipedia itself:

On November 29, journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr., once a member of Robert Kennedy’s staff, penned an op-ed piece in USA Today noting that an article on Wikipedia had incorrectly linked him to the assassination of Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy. The article, which stayed on the site for four months, stated that “John Seigenthaler, Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.” Wikipedia eventually deleted the inaccurate information, and now even contains an entry entitled, “John Seigenthaler, Sr. Wikipedia biography controversy” explaining the history of its own error.

And last month, former MTV VJ and podcasting pioneer Adam Curry was accused of editing out Wikipedia’s references to Kevin Marks, another early podcasting luminary. In a December 2 blog entry, Curry owned up to the switch and apologized.

Like the Kinsley experiment, these anecdotes demonstrate why editorial guardrails exist, human nature being what it is. Yet, if you type a search term into Google or Yahoo!, the Wikipedia entry almost invariably appears on the first page. Click on that link and you often find yourself in instant Internet heaven: A succinct, well-outlined and comprehensive article that is simple to browse, and contains a wealth of valuable hyperlinks. That’s why Wikipedia is the 37th most visited site on the Internet.

Has Wikipedia — the concept as well as the site itself — earned that level of credibility? How many Web users rely on what they find there? Are they aware the entry could contains errors or was written — or rewritten — by someone with a self-serving or crackpot version of history to promote? Back to Wharton:

The premise is that collective knowledge, which some call “open source” content, is every bit as valuable as professionally edited content. As a result, Wikipedia has become a hybrid encyclopedia/current events site that raises a number of interesting questions, including: Just how accurate is free content, given recent events at Wikipedia? Does the aggregate ‘wisdom of the crowd’ trump the expertise of knowledgeable individuals? Does Wikipedia’s policing mechanism work? Does the controversy over Wikipedia merely reflect further tension between old and new media?

This article is better at asking questions than answering them, but Wikipedia is so new, perhaps Wharton is wise to be cautious in drawing conclusions. They found that Wikipedia is getting better at policing itself, but is reluctant to take a step some have recommended — allowing readers to rate its roughly 1,000 authors, just like EBay’s ratings of sellers.

A rating system would be degrading as well as unrefined (founder Jimmy Wales believes). For instance, a biologist may be an expert on biology topics, but turn into a ranting madman when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In that example, the person would probably be rated a three-star overall,” says Wales. “But the rating would lose the human judgment element. In our system, we learn over time that you need to keep an eye on that editor” when he or she is working on topics related to the Middle East.

Wikipedia is a Rorscach Test for how one approaches all the Internet’s publishing innovations. Do you like blogs and think the wisdom of the hyperlink-happy blogging crowd averages out, to the discerning reader, to a richer understanding of the news? Or do you think the power to publish should bring with it a responsibility for pre-publication editorial review and fact-checking? For those who are dubious about the Internet and defend the traditional media, Wikipedia is an outrage. For those who are comfortable absorbing unfiltered information, Wikipedia is a valuable resource for starting — but not ending– your search for knowledge.

One thought on “A Thousand Eyes

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