Tag Archives: New encyclopedism

Wikipedia: Important enough to whitewash

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Wikipedia has gone through some interesting times, good and bad, but I think the last couple of weeks has proved just how powerful it is.

Powerful enough for those who feel denigrated by it to have been trying to spin, airbrush and generally rewrite how history — or at least Wikipedia — remembers them.

Take WikiScanner, cooked up by a young student, Virgil Griffith. WikiScanner does something very simple: It searches the Internet addresses of an organization — government, private, company or whatever — and matches them with any anonymous edit of a Wikipedia entry.

This means that while the edits themselves may be anonymous, the organization where the person is based is not. We may not know who did it, in other words, but we’ve got a pretty good idea of whom they work for.

The results have been surprising. Users of WikiScanner have come up with dozens of cases of companies, organizations and government departments apparently changing entries to either delete stuff they may not like, or making the text more palatable.

Some examples of apparent — none of these is confirmed but the Internet addresses match — self-interested alterations that have hit the news in the last few weeks:

* Diebold removes sections critical of the company’s electronic voting machines

* Apple and Microsoft trade negative comments about each other

* Amnesty International removes negative comments about itself, according to the Malta Star

(My own searches threw up no examples at all of institutions in my current home of Indonesia spinning on Wikipedia. Shame on them. What have they been doing with their time? One Indonesian embassy official seems to have spent most of his day editing an entry on rude finger gestures, but that’s about it. Clearly these people are not working hard enough for their country.)

The point about all this: Wikipedia is often derided as irrelevant and unworthy. Clearly, though, it’s important enough for these people, either officially or unofficially, on their own initiative or at the behest of higher-ups, to rewrite stuff to make themselves or their employer look better.

You might conclude from this that Wikipedia is not reliable as a result. I would argue the opposite: These edits have nearly all been undone by alert Wikipedians, usually very quickly.

(Wikipedia automatically stores all previous versions of a page and keeps a record of all the edits, and the Internet address from where they originate.)

The truth is that Wikipedia has come of age. Wikipedia is now important enough for ExxonMobil, The Church of Scientology, the U.S. Defense Department and the Australian government to spend time and effort trying to get their version of events across. If it was so irrelevant or unreliable, why would these people bother?

Of course, coming of age isn’t always a good thing. A recent conference on Wikipedia in Taiwan highlighted how Wikipedia is no longer an anarchic, free-for-all, but has somehow miraculously produced a golden egg.

It is now a bureaucracy, run by the kind of people who like to post “Don’t … ” notices on pantry walls. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. We all hate such people until our sandwich goes missing. Then we turn to them — or turn into them.

WikiScanner reveals that it’s probably good that such people take an interest in Wikipedia, because it’s clear that the site is under threat from people who would censor history and whitewash the truth to suit them.

Thanks to Virgil and the Wikipedians, that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

Wikipedia, Porn and the Airbrushing of History

An intriguing part of the story about Wikipedia and John Seigenthaler, the maligned journalist who found his Wikipedia biography had him as a JFK assassination suspect, is that the savvy folk obsessively monitor their own Wikipedia biographies, including Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales himself

who has edited it frequently, removing references to a credited “co-founder” of the encyclopedia and obscuring the nature of a pornographic web site he once published. Though some Wikipedia editors believe that it’s always wrong to edit subjects in which you are involved, this idea is clearly not shared by Wales. The edit history of his biography reveals that he’s made 18 changes with the account Jimbo Wales, most recently on Dec. 2.

The alleged co-founder in question is Larry Sanger, who coincidentally is setting up a ‘rival’ to Wikipedia, called Digital Universe which

aims to build on the model of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia by inviting acknowledged experts in a range of subjects to review material contributed by the general public. Called Digital Universe, the project is the brainchild of, among others, USWeb founder Joe Firmage and Larry Sanger, one of Wikipedia’s earliest creators.

By providing a service they’re calling “the PBS of the Web,” the Digital Universe team hopes to create a new era of free and open access to wide swaths of information on virtually any topic.

According to Roger Cadenhead’s piece, Jimmy Wales is energetic in refuting any role for Sanger in the emergence of Wikipedia:

On seven different occasions, Wales has altered sentences that gave Larry Sanger credit for cofounding Wikipedia. Sanger, a former employee of Wales whose job was eliminated in 2002, led the project as “chief organizer” from its January 2001 launch and gave the site its name. He described himself as Wikipedia’s cofounder in a 2004 Kuro5hin article. Wales does not share this view. On Oct. 28, 2005, he changed the text “Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia” to “Wales set up Wikipedia.” He made the change again later that day and repeated it on Nov. 9 and Dec. 1 — other editors kept putting language back in that credited Sanger.

It’s an interesting conundrum. 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.

Wikipedia To Freeze Entries?

[This story has since been denied by the purported source. Please see below for details]

For Wikipedia there have long been two problems: How to stop vandalism and how to create a product that could be considered ‘stable’ and ‘complete’ enough to burn to CD — in short a releasable version of the encyclopedia.

Maybe they’re close to an answer. Reuters is quoting founder Jimmy Wales as saying that he plans to impose stricter editorial rules to prevent vandalism of its content:

In an interview with German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Wales, who launched Wikipedia with partner Larry Sanger in 2001, said it needed to find a balance between protecting information from abuse and providing open access to improve entries.

“There may soon be so-called stable contents. In this case, we’d freeze the pages whose quality is undisputed,” he said.

Citing a recent example of vandalism, Wales recalled how following the election of the new Pope Benedict in April, a user substituted the pontiff’s photo on the Wikipedia site with that of the evil emperor from the Star Wars film series.

“The picture was only on the page for a minute. But whoever opens the article at this moment will get annoyed — and therefore doubt our credibility,” he told the paper.

Here’s how he might do it:

He said that setting up a form of “commission” might be one way of deciding which entries could be “frozen” in perpetuity.

My understanding is that this has been discussed for a while. I think it’s a great idea, not least because it would be great to see hard copy versions, and CD-Roms, of Wikipedia despatched to the schools and libraries of the world where its rich pool of information could be accessed by those without an Internet connection. I know the schools of Indonesia, where I am at the moment, could do with it.