Wikipedia Goes to Washington

All this stuff about people obsessively airbrushing their Wikipedia biographies is getting out of hand. In December we heard that even Jimmy Wales himself, the guy who has done more than anyone else to make Wikipedia what it is now, was not above tweaking the entry on himself. My conclusion then was that

Of course, Wales is not alone in monitoring his biography, and I’m sure if I had one, I would monitor it obsessively too. But when does ensuring that you’re not being accused of masterminding the assassination of presidents become Stalinesque airbrushing of history? And the logical result of this is that every biography on Wikipedia becomes an autobiography, which may keep the subjects happy, but may mark the end of Wikipedia as a useful tool.

Clearly I spoke way too soon. The Washington Post is following up an earlier story (reg req) about a congressman’s profile being altered by his intern with Wikipedia’s Help From the Hill which seems to suggest everyone on Capitol Hill is doing it:

The scope of the scandal keeps growing, and now that an investigation has been launched, a growing list of Capitol Hill members and their staff appear to be involved. No, this isn’t about fallout from the shenanigans of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. This concerns Wikipedia — the online encyclopedia written and edited by anyone who wants to contribute — and the suspected perpetrators of untruths about certain lawmakers.

A good piece, and an example of how things can get even more absurd than any of us might imagine. Where does it stop? Is any entry on anyone, living or dead, untampered with? Why were these tweaks not spotted (Obvious answer: no one cares about these politicians and their tawdry little histories)? What does this say about Wikipedia as an objective resource?

I think we should rest easy. Wikipedia will institute safeguards and everyone will take with a pinch of salt political biographies of the living — and perhaps a few other folk — on that website. But it does give us pause for thought. Would, if Wikipedia wasn’t a huge success, these folk have bothered getting their underlings to remove less palatable aspects of their past from its pages? The bottom line for me is that Wikipedia seems to have arrived. It’s being taken seriously enough by the powers-that-be for them to try to manipulate it to their advantage. That’s one in the eye for those who consider it a nerdy irrelevance.

09. February 2006 by jeremy
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