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Wikipedia: Teapot Tempest

In the flap over a misleading biography on Wikipedia, many seem to have forgotten what the site is all about.
December 7, 2005

Retired journalist John Siegenthaler, 78, ripped into the user-generated reference site Wikipedia in a USA Today commentary on November 29. Siegenthaler was understandably angry over a biographical entry at Wikipedia, posted in May by an anonymous contributor, that implied he was involved in the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.

In fact, Siegenthaler was Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, and was among his pallbearers. The misleading article stood uncorrected on Wikipedia from May 26 to October 5, when editors removed it at Siegenthaler’s request.

In the USA Today piece, Siegenthaler expressed frustration that federal law prevented him from suing Wikipedia for libel. He attacked Wikipedia’s 14,000 contributors as gossip hounds and “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.”

Naturally, the piece provoked a flurry of coverage in the mainstream media, much of it lambasting Wikipedia for its supposed lack of quality controls. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales acknowledged that there’s little to prevent malicious individuals from publishing false information on the site, but emphasized that the Wikipedia community is generally self-policing, with squads of Wikipedians standing ready at all times to vet changes.

But that didn’t quiet the criticism. On December 5, Wales buckled under, saying he would require all Wikipedia contributors to register and log in before posting. The extra step, he said, should help to discourage “impulse” vandals.

The fake biography of Siegenthaler obviously eluded Wikipedia’s community controls. So do many other articles, at least for a time. But to me, that’s no reason to condemn the concept of a citizens’ encyclopedia, or to start down the slippery slope of restricting access to Wikipedia’s publishing function.

What’s puzzling about the whole brouhaha is this: Rather than railing at Wikipedia in general, why didn’t Siegenthaler simply revise the objectionable entry and leave it at that? Indeed, the whole point of Wikipedia is that anyone can publish and anyone can edit. If you find an error, fix it. If you think you can write a better article, pull out your pen.

Of course, the flip side of the enormous flexibility provided by the Wiki format is that “anyone” includes people who are driven by motivations other than community spirit. But vandalism, malice, racism, spam, and the like can be kept to a minimum, as long as there are more good guys than bad guys. This is obviously happening at Wikipedia, or no one would be using it.

In subsequent USA Today coverage of the controversy, Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, CA, said he thought Siegenthaler was “overreacting” to the false biography. “He should have just changed it,” Saffo told the paper. “And he should’ve gotten his friends to help him watch it and every time it was changed, to change it back to what was correct. He clearly doesn’t understand the culture of Wikipedia.”

I’m starting to think that few of us really do. We’re accustomed to thinking of public pronouncements, whether in print or on radio or television, as permanent and irretrievable. Once something libelous, dematory, or scurrilous has been said or written, it cannot be unsaid or unwritten, and the only remedy is to sue for damages. But with Wiki-based media, this isn’t the case. With a few  mouse clicks, the victim of a false or offensive statement on Wikipedia can erase that statement, instantly and everywhere. (At least until it reappears. “Revert wars,” duels in which writers continually rewrite each others’ articles, are an unseemly but inevitable and probably healthy occurrence at Wikipedia.)

The community-editing model gives us a newfound power to create wrongs – but also to reverse wrongs. Let’s not start restricting this power before we even understand it.

*   *   *

On another front: We’ve closely followed the NTP-RIM lawsuit of late, and weighed the impact that a shutdown of the BlackBerry network would have on users. Chris Sinrod has a nice commentary today over at CNET’s News.com, confessing that he’s a CrackBerry addict that predicting that if the suit isn’t settled soon, RIM may see an “exodus” of customers to other wireless gadget-makers such as Palm.

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