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.