Reading the news lately, you may have been left with the impression that Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, is an information-age monster, destroying reputations like Godzilla batting away fighter jets. But if that’s all you’ve heard, your impression is gravely mistaken.
The controversy began two weeks ago when John Seigenthaler, a former journalist and aide to Robert Kennedy, penned an op-ed in USA Today decrying Wikipedia for posting a maliciously inaccurate biography of him suggesting he had something to do with the assassination of both Kennedy brothers. Writing of his difficulty in tracking down the anonymous author of the biography (who this week apologized), Seigenthaler concluded, “I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.”
Meanwhile, a Web site is soliciting clients for a class action lawsuit against Wikimedia, the organization that hosts Wikipedia, “to change its current practices that permit anyone to post content to their website, without formal attribution and without recourse back to Wikimedia Foundation and or the author of the content” and “Recover substantial monetary damages, on behalf of those who have suffered as a direct result of Wikimedia’s flawed business model.”
And media organizations have begun to pile on with the sort of schadenfreude they reserve for other media outlets who have made a mistake. As Carolyn Said wrote in a front-page article for the San Francisco Chronicle, “critics say Wikipedia leaves the door open for anyone who wants to rewrite history, whether it’s your neighbor with a grudge, a nut job floating a conspiracy theory or someone repeating an urban legend. As with other Web sources such as blogs, its accuracy can be hard to judge.”
Fair enough, but one could just as easily substitute the word “publications” for “Web sources” and the word “newspapers” for blogs in the previous sentence and it would still hold up. In short, this is a tempest in a teacup. Wikipedia is actually a good thing — maybe not for media organizations and other with business models based on proprietary content, but for the public at large.
Most of the controversy stems from a misunderstanding of what Wikipedia is, and the nature of the Internet in general. Anyone expressing outrage over false and misleading information being posted online (You mean, people post things that aren’t true on Web sites?) must not have been loading up their Web browsers for the last decade, let alone pointing them to the Drudge Report, bloggers with ideological axes to grind, or any of the innumerable semi-professional online conspiracy theorists.
Part of the argument against Wikipedia rests on the idea that users aren’t able to assess the credibility of the information they’re reading. In truth, however, Internet users are getting smarter about figuring out whether to believe information they find online (or, for that matter, in major news outlets). Google is a big part of this trend. The search engine produces results based on how many sites link to a given page; the more links to a page, the higher the result. Those links are generated by human beings, who are presumably doing so because they think the information they’re linking to is credible (or, at the very least, interesting).
Try dropping “Swiffer Wetjet” into Google, for example. A rumor last year had it that the product, a floor cleaning system, was harmful to household pets. But the first Google results are pages debunking the myth, not propagating it. In other words, the more credible information has risen to the top,
The very nature of the Internet — the ability to link to sources readers can evaluate for themselves, the ability to quickly read multiple sources of information about the same subject — tends to make online readers much more critical consumers of information (witness the proliferation of blogs, like this one, devoted entirely to evaluating the news media).
Thus, the damage wrought by any single untruth temporarily floating around in the vast ocean of Wikipedia isn’t likely to last long. Certainly, the Seigenthaler episode is a reminder that such information can be inaccurate, and he’s right to complain about other sites scraping up Wikipedia content and presenting it as their own. But the general trend is away from the proliferation of such rumors.
More than that, however, what’s been obscured in much of the coverage is that the Wikipedia model actually works. The English-language Wikipedia boasts over 800,000 articles, all generated for free, and freely available to anyone with Internet access. That’s a tremendous amount of information being made far more accessible to far more people than print or broadcast can reach.