Citizen Pundits

Forget citizen journalism. How about citizen punditry? An unnamed taxi driver IT specialist appeared on the BBC’s news 24 after being mistaken for his fare, technology pundit Guy Kewney. Despite the BBC’s apparent efforts to suppress the moment, the Daily Mail has recovered it, according to Guy himself, who is rightly highly amused that his face, and ethnicity, are not particularly well known to BBC staff. You can download the clip here.

As Guy says, “you can watch the classic moment, where the cab driver realises that he is on air, and being mistaken for someone else, here. It’s beyond classic: it’s priceless. Watch his incredible recovery, and his determination to show that this may be a complete surprise to him, but that he can out-Kewney any darned NewsWireless Editor if he has to.”

The Times reports that “it is not the first time that the BBC has been embarrassed by a case of mistaken identity. Last year Rhodri Morgan, the First Minister of Wales, was mistaken for a cast member of Doctor Who when he was due to appear on the BBC Wales political show Dragon’s Eye.

Unfortunately the identity of the cabbie in question has not yet been established. He deserves a medal for his performance and to have his own show. I’m all in favour of this kind of thing. If only more television networks would take a broader, more inclusive view of what it means to be an “expert” we might all benefit.

[Update (thanks, Juha, for pointing out): The cabbie has been found, and he’s not a cabbie, but a data cleansing expert. Not such a good story as the original, but nice to get it right.]

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.

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.

The Lessons of Wikipedia

The Seigenthaler/Wikipedia case is attracting attention from strange quarters. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s fodder for pondering on the nature of truth, falsehood and deliberate obfuscation. From OfficialWire, there’s this piece: “It’s Your Story…You Tell It Anyway You Want On Wikipedia”:

After four months, Seigenthaler was finally able to get Wales to remove the offending piece from Wikipedia and from the other online ‘resources’ that simply copy from Wales’ pool of data, but not before it had been read by tens of thousands of people, who may or may not have repeated, copied or stored the nonsense.

I may not have looked hard enough at this, but I can find no support for that assertion in Seigenthaler’s original piece. He visited the site in late September, and doesn’t specifically say when the offensive remarks about him were removed. But he does say they had been up there for four months, which, given an initial publication date of May 26, I put at late September. In other words, it sounds as if pretty much immediately after Seigenthaler had complained to Jimmy Wales, the owner of Wikipedia, the remarks were removed. The OfficialWire piece is ambiguous, but a casual reader might well assume that Seigenthaler had been bugging a reluctant Wales for four months to pull the offensive text. Doesn’t sound like it was like that.

So, a distorted and offensive entry on Wikipedia now spreads like a stain in the retelling. Is it just an innocent mistake? OfficialWire is run by someone called Greg Lloyd Smith, who wrote the December 4 piece. In it he links to another piece OfficialWire put out back in early January, written by one Jennifer Monroe, who writes about the activities of a Wikipedia volunteer, Christian Wirth, whom the piece alleges to have been trying to “sully the good work” of an organisation called QuakeAID. QuakeAID is an organisation with the same owner as OfficialWire. These two organisations, and other linked groups, have extensive entries on Wikipedia, none of the material particularly flattering (sentences such as ‘The following indicators raise questions about QuakeAID’s legitimacy and good faith’).

On first glance the contents of these articles seem damning and I’m not going to question their veracity. But is there something not quite right with this picture? It’s good that research is being done, and, to judge by the pages’ history, there’s plenty of “toning down” being done. But one can’t help asking the questionL Is there an ax to grind on the part of certain members of Wikipedia about Lloyd Smith and his activities, and, if so, is Wikipedia the correct forum in which to wield one? I wonder whether Seigenthaler’s case might not be offering us a more nuanced lesson than merely its occasional unreliability. After all, we still don’t know the motive (or the identity) of Seigenthaler’s character assassin. Perhaps it’s not mindless vandals we should be worried about on Wikipedia; it’s people using its benign offices to settle scores and run opponents out of town.

The “Danger” of Wikipedia: “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”

An interesting piece in Editor & Publisher on The Danger of Wikipedia, that quotes a USA Today piece written by John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist who served as Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, says that a very personal experience has convinced him that “Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool”:

Seigenthaler writes that a “biography” on the site posted by an anonymous author libeled him when it offered the following unsourced statement: “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”

As the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Seigenthaler is not known to be an advocate of restricting the right of free speech.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Seigenthaler’s alleged role appeared in his biography. I could find no reference to him at all in the JFK books I have, and there’s nothing, at least obviously, online about it. Clearly it was a deliberate piece of falsification, and, to Wikipedia’s credit, it has investigated the case. The point made there is that there isn’t much one can do about chasing down vandals working via Internet Service Providers “with providers who use proxies and dynamic IP addresses to give their users complete anonymity.”

That’s not enough for Seigenthaler, and the story relates his frustration in trying to find out who had libelled him, and Wikipedia comes in for a bit of a pounding:

Seigenthaler disputes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ assertion that the site’s thousands of volunteer editors operate a quick self-correcting mechanism. “My ‘biography’ was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers ‘edited’ it only by correcting the misspelling of the word ‘early,'” Seigenthaler writes. “For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5.”

Seigenthaler concludes with the following: “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.”

Well, yes. In a way I can appreciate his frustration (and you wonder how many more libels there out there in Wikipedia-land). But I fear he overreacts. The fact that there were no edits of the page for four months — and that it took him four months to find it, or for someone to point it out to him — has more to do with how little the page was read, I suspect, than with the invidious nature of the enterprise. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be improved — indeed, according to a poster on Slashdot, some improvements are in the works in the field of validation — but I think it’s harsh to say the the universe is “populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. Peppered with, dotted with, sprinkled with, scattered with, speckled with, strewn with; perhaps. But overall the sum of human knowledge is significantly increased by the volunteers of Wikipedia.

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.