Wikipedia: Active Deception or Proactive Community

Washington Post writer Frank Ahrens chronicles the evolution of the Wikipedia entry on Kenneth Lay as the details about his death became known. He claims that it uncovered the key weakness of Wikipedia, which prevents it from being a credible source of information.

A few gems from his article include:

Unlike, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia has no formal peer review for its articles. They may be written by experts or insane crazy people. Or worse, insane crazy people with an agenda.

But here’s the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you’re getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it’s fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.

Some Wikipedia articles contain warnings that concerns have been raised over accuracy. But that’s not the same as offering fact-checked data.

I’m a fan of Wikipedia and Wiki notions, such as “citizen journalism.” I just want them to be better. (Washington Post)

I think that Ahrens misses the point. He cites the fact that someone edited Kenneth Lay’s Wikipedia entry to say that the cause of death was an apparent suicide, and it went through several iterations before being corrected to read that the cause of death was not yet determined. The time it took to correct the erroneous entry? Three minutes. Yes, three long minutes. To me, this shows that the Wikipedia community is doing its job, and it demonstrates the power of having an active community. The Kenneth Lay entry went through a few more iterations including some speculation that the Enron trial may have caused the heart attack; however, these were also corrected quickly.

The benefit of having an active and vibrant community comes through in times like what was described by Ahrens. There is a tremendous power that can be harnessed when you open something up to a community. Rather than hiring a few experts to write content, you can harness the power of many contributors around the world. The difference with Wikipedia is that instead of a formal peer review, you have many experts acting informally as peer reviewers. While mistakes like in the Kenneth Lay entry will creep into Wikipedia, the community acting as peer reviewers will see and correct the mistakes. As the content is evaluated and analyzed by the community, it improves in quality and self-corrects quickly. Eric Raymond referred to this concept as “Linus’s Law” stating that “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” (Eric Raymond). This means that as more and more people look at the content, mistakes will be found and corrected resulting in an end product with high quality. This is the premise behind Wikipedia. The wiki technology used by Wikipedia makes it easy for anyone to contribute, and articles are written collaboratively while changes are recorded making it easy to correct inaccuracies and track the changes to any article over time. The idea is that as more and more people use Wikipedia, users will make corrections and contribute content to improve Wikipedia.

Like Ahrens, I am also a fan of citizen journalism and community content; however, these need to be evaluated on their own merits, not criticized just because they do not conform to today’s rules of traditional journalism. We need to evolve our thinking to reflect the current reality rather than being stuck in the past.

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