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“I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me,” Lanier wrote. “Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I’m turned into a film director again.”

Since Lanier’s attempted edits to his own Wikipedia entry were based on firsthand knowledge of his own career, he was in direct violation of Wikipedia’s three core policies. He has a point of view; he was writing on the basis of his own original research; and what he wrote couldn’t be verified by following a link to some kind of legitimate, authoritative, and verifiable publication.

Wikipedia’s standard for “truth” makes good technical and legal sense, given that anyone can edit its articles. There was no way for Wikipedia, as a community, to know whether the person revising the article about Jaron Lanier was really Jaron Lanier or a vandal. So it’s safer not to take people at their word, and instead to require an appeal to the authority of another publication from everybody who contributes, expert or not.

An interesting thing happens when you try to understand Wikipedia: the deeper you go, the more convoluted it becomes. Consider the verifiability policy. Wikipedia considers the “most reliable sources” to be “peer-reviewed journals and books published in university presses,” followed by “university-level textbooks,” then magazines, journals, “books published by respected publishing houses,” and finally “mainstream newspapers” (but not the opinion pages of newspapers).

Once again, this makes sense, given Wikipedia’s inability to vet the real-world identities of authors. Lanier’s complaints when his Wikipedia page claimed that he was a film director couldn’t be taken seriously by Wikipedia’s “contributors” until Lanier persuaded the editors at Edge to print his article bemoaning the claim. This Edge article by Lanier was enough to convince the Wikipedians that the Wikipedia article about Lanier was incorrect–after all, there was a clickable link! Presumably the editors at Edge did their fact checking, so the wikiworld could now be corrected.

As fate would have it, Lanier was subsequently criticized for engaging in the wikisin of editing his own wikientry. The same criticism was leveled against me when I corrected a number of obvious errors in my own Wikipedia entry.

“Criticism” is actually a mild word for the kind of wikijustice meted out to ­people who are foolish enough to get caught editing their own Wikipedia entries: the entries get slapped with a banner headline that says “A major contributor to this article, or its creator, may have a conflict of interest regarding its subject matter.” The banner is accompanied by a little picture showing the scales of justice tilted to the left. Wikipedia’s “Autobiography” policy explains in great detail how drawing on your own knowledge to edit the Wikipedia entry about yourself violates all three of the site’s cornerstone policies–and illustrates the point with yet another appeal to authority, a quotation from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

But there is a problem with appealing to the authority of other people’s written words: many publications don’t do any fact checking at all, and many of those that do simply call up the subject of the article and ask if the writer got the facts wrong or right. For instance, Dun and Bradstreet gets the information for its small-business information reports in part by asking those very same small businesses to fill out questionnaires about themselves.

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Credit: Raymond Beisinger

Tagged: Web

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