Wikipedia: Good or Evil?

Much as I appreciate Wikipedia’s Book of the World and its many temptations, I’ve come to see it as a geek Satan.

Wikipedia, I know you—Beezlebub, Googlepuss—by your thousand thousand names and your 3-million-plus entries. I will make you wise beyond your dreams, you murmur, your jeweled claw tightening. You will have the answer in seconds rather than appearing hopelessly stupid.

Yes, you know me, too. I hate looking clueless, especially in front of my eight-year-old son. But what I hate more is losing the foundation for all truth in a constantly fracturing informationscape. And now I find that one of Wikipedia’s founders, Larry Sanger, would like to disown his creation.

Sanger and his doubts are profiled in “Deconstructing Wikipedia,” the cover article by Chris Lydgate of the June 2010 issue of Reed Magazine. (Sanger is a Reed College alum; so are Lydgate, editor of the magazine, and I.)

In 2000, Sanger joined dot-com entrepreneur Jimmy Wales to start an online encyclopedia.* Sanger’s initial “Nupedia” bogged down in a sluggish editorial process for verifying information. But with the addition of wiki technology—that is, an interface that allows anyone to add and revise entries—Wikipedia launched just a year later.

As Lydgate notes in Reed, in one month, Wikipedia had a 1,000 entries. By the end of 2001, it had 13,000. The rest is history.

Full disclosure: I’m a freelance writer and editor, and I teach in a journalism program. My profession predisposes me to hate Wikipedia for financial reasons alone. I also love to poke sticks at the conventional wisdom, partly because messing with people’s minds can make a good lead.

However, here’s Problem Number One: Wikipedia entries employ the “objective,” third-person voice of the expert, yet Wikipedians are “largely anonymous” according to the site. So there’s no one to hold accountable for errors. If other writers edit those entries, readers have no way of telling who those anonymous revisers are either.

Standard news writers employ the god-like voice, too, but they have bylines. In journalistic terms, stories develop; the news cycle indicates the way information changes over time.

The crucial point is that writers with bylines remain accountable. The name on the story is responsible for making mistakes, and corrections are noted (at least they’re supposed to be). That’s why I use my name, online and in print, when I’m writing nonfiction. Readers may hate what I have to say, but they know who to point the finger at.

This is the nub of what’s often referred to as the need for “media literacy” in schools: helping students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources—and to sniff out bias and hidden agendas. Yet think about how many school teachers point kids to Wikipedia and nowhere else.

Sanger didn’t stick with Wikipedia long, partly because of battles fought with anonymous vandals and trolls. (The recent fuss over purging child porn images on its Wikimedia venture indicates just how hard it is to control content.) But in 2005, two years after Sanger had gone, noted journalist John Seigenthaler tracked him down. Seigenthaler had gotten no help from Wikipedia and didn’t know who else to hold responsible for a false claim.

Seigenthaler, formerly of the Tennessean and USA Today, complained that for several months his biography had stated he’d been “complicit” in JFK’s and RFK’s assassinations. He blasted Wikipedia in a USA Today editorial. “At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me,” Seigenthaler writes. “I was wrong.”

But as Lydgate points out:

“By a quirk of federal law, Wikipedia is immune to libel suits. Individual authors can be sued, but only if they can be identified—and Wikipedia’s lax registration does not even require them to leave valid email addresses.”

This ethical nebulousness applies to writing in the blogosphere in general: Is it journalism—and if not, what? Sanger was distressed enough to start over in 2006 with a new encyclopedia venture called Citizendium, in which writers are not anonymous and their entries are vetted by experts.

Which brings up Problem Number Two: If all sources of knowledge become wikis, then users not only take in potentially faulty information; they also feel free to mash and mangle—without credit—anything that comes their way.

For the past two years, in my classes, I’ve noted more students pulling quotes and statistics from other sources without attribution or the use of quotation marks to indicate that the words come from somewhere else. Even more disturbing, I think they often do this unwittingly. They see everyone else doing it, including the writers of those ever-ballooning entries on Wikipedia.

Journalists of yore certainly were not immune from “sampling” press releases or making up anecdotes. But the essence of any trustworthy article, whether told from a personal point of view or in the god-like third-person, is the meaning a writer makes of the material—the individual writer, not a bunch of webbed-together wiki-heads. Sanger, as quoted in Reed, puts this well:

“An encyclopedia entry is not just a collection of facts…. It’s the ability to construct a narrative of the subject, the ability to describe things in a way that does not supply a misleading implication…. This is the sort of thing that separates the real expert from the ersatz expert.”

It separates real journalists from the lazy (or inexperienced) ones, too. Wikipedia may be the sixth most popular site on the Web, but its main value for journalists, academics, or anyone looking for truth is as an aggregator of sources. It could be a first stop for what’s been compiled and said about a given topic. If you hit on a well-researched article, you’ll find lots of primary sources or news sites footnoted to lead you farther on the quest.

But that’s it. Landing on one link can never be the whole journey. Wikipedia will not contribute to our rapidly declining store of Truth until its writers and editors are accountable by name. Until then, get thee behind me—and stop hogging the search engines, ‘bub.

* According to Lydgate, “since 2005, Jimmy Wales has portrayed himself as the sole founder of Wikipedia. Most sources, however, confirm Sanger’s key role in developing the site.” You can read Larry Sanger’s bio on Wikipedia with an explanation here.