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“I said, ‘If it hasn’t been vetted by the rele­vant experts, then basically we are setting ourselves up as a frontline source of new, original information, and we aren’t set up to do that,’” Sanger (who is himself, ironically or not, a former philosophy instructor and by training an epistemologist) recalls telling his fellow Nupedians.

With experts barred from writing about their own work and having no incentive to write about anything else, Nupedia struggled. Then Sanger and Jimmy Wales, Nupedia’s founder, decided to try a different policy on a new site, which they launched on January 15, 2001. They adopted the newly invented “wiki” technology, allowing anybody to contribute to any article–or create a new one–on any topic, simply by clicking “Edit this page.”

Soon the promoters of oddball hypothe­ses and outlandish ideas were all over Wikipedia, causing the new site’s volunteers to spend a good deal of time repairing damage–not all of it the innocent work of the misguided or deluded. (A study recently published in Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery found that 11 percent of Wikipedia articles have been vandalized at least once.) But how could Wikipedia’s volunteer editors tell if something was true? The solution was to add references and footnotes to the articles, “not in order to help the reader, but in order to establish a point to the satisfaction of the [other] contributors,” says Sanger, who left Wikipedia before the verifiability policy was formally adopted. (Sanger and Wales, now the chairman emeritus of the Wikimedia Foundation, fell out about the scale of Sanger’s role in the creation of Wikipedia. Today, Sanger is the creator and editor in chief of Citizendium, an alternative to Wikipedia that is intended to address the inadequacy of its “reliability and quality.”)

Verifiability is really an appeal to au­thority–not the authority of truth, but the authority of other publications. Any other publication, really. These days, information that’s added to Wikipedia without an appropriate reference is likely to be slapped with a “citation needed” badge by one of Wikipedia’s self-appointed editors. Remove the badge and somebody else will put it back. Keep it up and you might find yourself face to face with another kind of authority–one of the English-language Wikipedia’s 1,500 administrators, who have the ability to place increasingly restrictive protections on contentious pages when the policies are ignored.

To be fair, Wikipedia’s verifiability policy states that “articles should rely on reliable, third-party published sources” that themselves adhere to Wikipedia’s NPOV policy. Self-published articles should generally be avoided, and non-English sources are discouraged if English articles are available, because many people who read, write, and edit En.Wikipedia (the English-language version) can read only English.

Mob Rules
In a May 2006 essay on the technology and culture website Edge.org, futurist Jaron Lanier called Wikipedia an example of “digital Maoism”–the closest humanity has come to a functioning mob rule.

Lanier was moved to write about Wikipedia because someone kept editing his Wikipedia entry to say that he was a film director. Lanier describes himself as a “computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author.” He is good at all those things, but he is no director. According to his essay, he made one short experimental film in the 1990s, and it was “awful.”

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Credit: Raymond Beisinger

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