Quote of the day: WIKIPEDIA

January 15, 2011

WIKIPEDIA

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001. It was co-founded by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales. Sanger was a philosopher who specialized in epistemology, which is the study of knowledge itself — how it works, how we learn, how knowledge is spread and why we believe what we do. Wales was an entrepreneur who started out on a more traditional career path, working at a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, before deciding that the Internet was the way of the future. First Wales created a Web domain called Bomis, catered toward men. There were Web rings like “babe,” “sports,” and “adult.” Bomis didn’t really take off, but it did make enough on advertising to fit the bills for Wales’ next project, Nupedia.

For Nupedia, Wales recruited Sanger, who was a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy. They were both interested in open-source software, and were excited by the idea of creating an online encyclopedia that anyone could contribute to. They decided that articles would go through a rigorous peer-reviewed process to make sure they were as accurate as those in any other encyclopedia. So they launched Nupedia in March of 2000. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well. Writers would get critiqued so intensely by scholarly reviewers that they were too afraid to write more articles. After six months, only two articles had made it through the peer-review process. Larry Sanger was talking to a programmer, Ben Kovitz, who explained the concept of a wiki and suggested using wiki software for an encyclopedia, so that anyone could write and anyone could edit, making the encyclopedia truly collaborative. Sanger brought the idea to Wales, and they decided to give it a chance. They kept it separate from Nupedia, in case it was a failure. Instead, they called their new venture Wikipedia.

And in almost no time Wikipedia became far more popular than Nupedia. In 2009, the English-language version of Wikipedia hit the 3 million-article mark when someone wrote an article on the Norwegian actress Beate Eriksen. Since then, the number has continued to rise, and there are about 3.5 million articles in English. Overall, there are more than 17 million articles in more than 270 languages.

There are two fundamental rules for anyone who is going to write for Wikipedia. One is that the author must attempt to be neutral in tone. The other is that the author should choose items that they support, not that they want to criticize. Another less-enforced rule is that people aren’t supposed to edit entries about themselves — but many do, including Jimmy Wales, who has edited his own entry many times, mostly to downplay the adult content of Bomis and to give himself more credit as the founder of Wikipedia.

A common critique of Wikipedia is that, because anyone can write about anything, the encyclopedia places too much emphasis on fringe items that have cult followings — for example, one journalist pointed out that the entry on Star Wars creatures is one and a half times longer than the entry on World War II; another noticed that the entry for Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in Star Trek, is longer than the entry for Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. The other major criticism is that Wikipedia is inaccurate, which would make sense since there are no credentials required for writers. However, a study published in Nature compared the accuracy of Wikipedia to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, and was surprised to find that the accuracy was comparable — on average, about three errors per Britannica item and about four errors per Wikipedia item.

Wikipedia itself is open about its own shortcomings. On its “Researching with Wikipedia” page, it says: “Wikipedia’s most dramatic weaknesses are closely associated with its greatest strengths. Wikipedia’s radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism and deliberate factual errors than a typical reference work. Also, much as Wikipedia can rapidly produce articles on timely topics, it is also subject to remarkable oversights and omissions.” Other weaknesses, it says, are that articles may be incomplete and that not all contributors cite their sources. Their suggestion is just to do more research: “Keep in mind that an encyclopedia is intended to be a starting point for serious research, not an endpoint. Though many casual inquiries will be satisfied merely by referring to Wikipedia, you will learn more by accessing the print and online resources we reference.”

In 2009, an Irish student named Shane Fitzgerald was doing research on the Internet’s relationship to globalization. He saw on TV that the French composer Maurice Jarre had died, and he decided it was the perfect opportunity for an experiment. Within 15 minutes, he made up a quote and posted it on Wikipedia’s Maurice Jarre page, claiming that the composer had said: “One could say my life itself has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life, and music is how I will be remembered long after I leave this life. When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head that only I can hear.” Shawn Fitzgerald didn’t even provide a fake citation for the quote — he just left it without a citation.

Newspapers had just one day to write an obituary for Jarre, and sure enough, several papers and blogs picked up the fake quote for their obituaries — including The Guardian, one of Britain’s most respected newspapers. Wikipedia actually managed to identify the quote as suspicious. It was deleted after Fitzgerald put it up, and when he reposted it, it was deleted in just six minutes. After he reposted it again, it was left up for about a day, and then deleted again. But it was up long enough to make its way into obituaries, and Fitzgerald had to e-mail media outlets and tell them that the quote was fake — he said that otherwise they probably never would have noticed. Only The Guardian publicly admitted its mistake — others just deleted the quote from their obituary. The editor of The Guardian wrote: “The moral of this story is not that journalists should avoid Wikipedia, but that they shouldn’t use information they find there if it can’t be traced back to a reliable primary source.” Maybe most of all, the story shows how freely people turn to Wikipedia as a news source. In 2007, The New York Times reported that since 2004, more than a hundred judicial rulings in this country relied on evidence from Wikipedia. Some of the instances where Wikipedia was used in court included a definition of the Jewish marriage ceremony in a Brooklyn Surrogate Court, an explanation of “jungle juice” for the Supreme Court of Iowa, and an entry on the Department of Homeland Security’s threat levels for a case involving antiwar protestors in Georgia’s 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

— The Writer’s Almanac

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