Wikipedia’s content itself is, in general, quite good. Most of the entries are quick overviews synthesizing information from other sources. If you’re looking for basic factual information about, say, zebras, or coffee or even Columbia University, Wikipedia is a good place to start. Moreover, a number of experts contribute to Wikipedia (particularly when it comes to technology), making its longer articles on more esoteric topics especially useful. (See the entry on DNS, the domain name system underlying the Internet, for just one example.) And a survey published this week by the British scientific journal Nature found that Wikipedia was nearly as accurate as Encyclopedia Brittanica about scientific information.
The fact that everyone can produce and edit entries on Wikipedia is, generally speaking, a great virtue. Entries tend to be edited and refined iteratively, not unlike a breaking news story that develops and merits more articles after the initial report. The effect is a gigantic collective data download from the brains of contributors. There are always, as anyone with a Web site that includes a comments section can tell you, a couple of idiots who want to ruin things for everyone — but, all in all, those are surprisingly few and far between. And, increasingly, deletion of false information occurs swiftly at Wikipedia. If, say, Fortune magazine prints an error, that error is out there on newsstands for two full weeks before a new edition of Fortune comes along. Wikipedia’s users don’t have to wait two weeks to clean up someone else’s mess; they can do it in two minutes, once they spot it.
Then there is the question of responsibility for the content itself. While Wikipedia is published and overseen by the Wikimedia Foundation (and by Jimmy Wales, the founder of the site), it relies on unpaid, usually anonymous, contributors and editors. (Tracking down Seigenthaler’s libeler turned out to be onerous — though not impossible — because of the relative lack of data about users.) Wikipedia does make available the edit history of most entries (you can see, for example, that the zebras entry has been edited a few dozen times), but it doesn’t require verification of a user’s identity (a not-uncommon practice on the Web).
The downside of that system is obvious in episodes like the Seigenthaler case. But there’s a practical reason to do it Wikipedia’s way, as well — letting people anonymously post and edit entries generates the maximum amount of content for the least amount of overhead on the part of contributors and editors. That’s the nature of distributed enterprises like Wikipedia: the more barriers you erect to producing content, the less of it you’re likely to get. And the anonymous nature of Wikipedia’s editors also emphasizes that the project is collaborative — no one gets ownership over any single entry, which encourages people to contribute as they see fit.
In many ways, Wikipedia is actually a better model for generating information than the traditional author/editor/publisher model. For one, as noted earlier, it’s far easier to fix things when they’re wrong. Try extracting a correction from a major news outlet, and see how far you get. Think of the recent controversy over an alleged bump of a rescue worker by Geraldo Rivera reported in the New York Times, which didn’t issue a correction until the paper’s public editor finally shamed them into it. One thing you can always do on Wikipedia that you can’t do when the Times prints a story about you that’s inaccurate or unfair: hit the “edit” button.
And the impact of mistakes that do make their way into Wikipedia is nothing compared to the impact of mistakes in major news outlets. Think weapons of mass destruction, or the CBS MemoGate scandal, or Jayson Blair, or Stephen Glass, or Janet Cook — to say nothing of the day-to-day errors and inaccuracies that we get paid to pick on here at CJR Daily.
The truth being obscured by the Seigenthaler case is that Wikipedia provides an outstanding model for producing a large body of useful content for almost zero cost — and because of the low cost, there’s no need to charge anyone for access to it.
At the end of the day, Wikipedia looks less like a reputation-munching monster, and more like the future of information in the Internet age.
Correction: The above has been changed to note that it there is no law firm backing the Web site soliciting members for a class action suit against Wikipedia.