Mon 5 Dec 2005
This CNet article discusses two recent high profile cases that have brought the issues around quality of information on Wikipedia to the forefront again. First, John Seigenthaler, complained in a USA Today op/ed piece that Wikipedia was fundimentally flawed because, for a time, it includes an article that accused him of involvement with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. Second, Podcasting guru and former MTV VJ Adam Curry was accused of eliminating content attributed to other founders of the Podcasting genre in a Wikipedia article on that subject. There has also been a lively discussion on this issue going on the AOIR listserv. So, I want to take this opportunity to make a few points in no particular order (some copied from my posting to the list):
Wikipedia handles information quality with brute force. And to great effect: I don't see this as an inherent shortcoming. Wikipedia assumes, perhaps rightly, that many eyeballs make good information. Whether or not this is true in the end, the question is whether it is true at the moment that one might access the article. Has the quality of the information been recently compromised? And if so, has ample time passed for inaccuracies to be corrected?
Compounding the above point is the fact that Wikipedia's quality assurance mechanism only works on a macro-level. We have little information about whether individual articles have been properly vetted by many users at a specific point. We end up deciding in general whether we believe the mechanism works or not.
One common tool that people use to make decisions about information quality is authorship. But in the name of promoting the commons-authorship model, Wikipedia actually obscures the notion of the author at an individual level. If you wanted to find out who wrote an individual piece an article, there would be no reasonable way to do that. Though MediaWiki keeps detailed page histories, wading through them, especially for articles that have 1000s of edits, is overwhelming if not impossible.
The CNet article points out a few high profile cases that have made waves recently. But, despite the pressure that increased public attention brings, I think the Wikipedia community ought to stick to its guns. Yes, the issue of information quality on Wikipedia is contested – but isn't it contested on the Internet in general too? Neither Wikipedians nor Jimmy Wales are responsible for how Wikipedia is used. We do not create perceptions of information quality, and we cannot manufacture critical thinking about authorship and the reliability of sources. We can, however, promote these things through education and our interactions with the site, and perhaps with some tweaks to the current MediaWiki model that brings ideas about authorship and other common mechanisms for information quality to the fore.
Fundamentally, however, the responsibility is ours. Our instinct in cases where there are mistakes is to look for someone to blame – poor old John has been maligned and he's mad. He's choosing to condemn Wikipedia as a whole, but he's awfully narrow minded. If there is someone to blame for Wikipedia it is the community of people who read it, contribute to it, and talk about it. Suggesting either that Wikipedia ought to be banned as a source or otherwise regulated misses the point entirely. All Wikipedia does is set up a framework for commons production. If we don't like the mode of production, then it is up to us to change it. Anyone (including John Seigenthaler himself) could have fixed the error that so annoyed him. They didn't, apparently, because unlike almost any other article on Wikipedia, there were no links to his page from within the site. As a result there was no traffic. No eyeballs. But if no one saw it, then what's the big deal? Fix the error and quit your bitching! Likewise I think it makes dramatic news to say that Adam Curry did something underhanded and self-serving by removing references he thought were incorrect, but what did he do wrong? He accepted his duty to contribute to information quality by participating in the mode of production. It got him into trouble because there was a conflict of interest – but should that have prevented him from doing it? Another sticky issue, for sure. But at least Adam didn't sit around whining – he did something.