The Lessons of Wikipedia

By | December 5, 2005

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.

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