Wiki’s web, the Times’ glass house…

On Sunday, the New York Times picked up an op-ed in USA-Today and published an interesting article about the inaccuracies and maliciously un-edited nature of the Wikipedia, our premier open-source encyclopedia. The article, Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar recounts with a little glee and absolutely no sense of irony how:

ACCORDING to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler’s biography, true?

The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he “was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby.”

“Nothing was ever proven,” the biography added.

Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.

This is another case where technology turns a relatively everyday event into a harbinger of technological doom. I’ll be the first to admit that technologies bring unintended, and often catastrophic, consequences. But this is an example of how new technologies that are no worse than old technologies managed to get blamed for crimes that, in the old ways of doing things, were just business as usual.

Worse things happen every day in the book reviews posted anonymously on Amazon (I should know). Worse still happen in the NYT Review of Books, considering the far greater damage to writers’ careers of a bad review in the NYT magazine. And of course, the irony absent this NYT report on the Wikipedia makes it seem that such a travesty of truth could never happen to the Times news organization itself (see the Wiki for Jayson Blair and Judith Miller).

As the Times reports, “Mr. Seigenthaler discovered that the false information had been on the site for several months and that an unknown number of people had read it, and possibly posted it on or linked it to other sites.” Seriously, how many people do you think saw it, or possibly posted it on their sites? Now compare this number to how many people read Judith Miller’s reports on the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction? Here a bit from the Wiki on Miller:

On May 26, 2004, a week after the U.S. government apparently severed ties with Ahmed Chalabi, a Times editorial acknowledged that some of that newspaper’s coverage in the run-up to the war had relied too heavily on Chalabi and other Iraqi exiles bent on regime change. It also regretted that “information that was controversial [was] allowed to stand unchallenged.” While the editorial rejected “blame on individual reporters,” others noted that ten of the twelve flawed stories discussed had been written or co-written by Miller.

From the glass house they live in, the NYT editorial staff should be much more careful about throwing stones at online reference material.

Personally, I happen to think the Wikipedia is one of the better things since sliced bread, as it is an incredibly useful 1st (but not last) reference tool. Where else could you get several pages of text on Lego’s, along with links to 12 other Wiki entries and 40 or so external links? Do you think Britannica pays as much attention? It only cares about the founder or Lego as part of an article on toys–though that is open only to paying members. How about M’Soft’s Encarta? It only sends me to a dictionary definition and another generic article on toys (not to mention a pop-up ad the size of my screen). And, of coruse, the great material on Jayson Blair and Judith Miller…

And, as a footnote, I find it nice that Wikipedia even includes this last bit of history on Seigenthaler:

Between May and September 2005, the Wikipedia article on Seigenthaler contained a number of inaccurate statements, including allegations he may have been “directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby,” assertions he considered “character assassination.” The statements, added by an anonymous editor and since removed, prompted Seigenthaler to write an Op-Ed in USA Today on November 29, in which he stated that “…Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool…[f]or four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin.” Seigenthaler said that he had tried to determine the identity of the anonymous editor but had been unable to do so. Seigenthaler’s article prompted a number of commentators to write about the issue and Wikipedia and the internet in general, and on December 5, Seigenthaler appeared on CNN with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

9 thoughts on “Wiki’s web, the Times’ glass house…

  1. […] Andy Hargadon brings sense and perspective to the Wikipedia fracas: I’ll be the first to admit that technologies bring unintended, and often catastrophic, consequences. But this is an example of how new technologies that are no worse than old technologies managed to get blamed for crimes that, in the old ways of doing things, were just business as usual. […]

  2. For the first time we are empowered to not trust the so called experts. As consumers of all things including media we all have a responsibility to be cautious and judicious when choosing a source for media. I hear the concerns about wikipedia, but I site the enormous wealth of information that it draws on, information that is constantly in flux and ever changing. Technology has put demands on information sources that they always be current and in a state of ever improving flux. Not something that the latest copy of the print encyclopedia can do.

  3. I’m so sick of Wikipedia criticism. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty darn good and an incredible testament to the power of a massive community being loosely organized.

  4. Wow. Holier-than-thou blathering like Andrew’s post totally misses the point. A knowledge source that can’t be trusted is useless, and Wikipedia is completely, and I mean completely, unreliable.
    Vast sections are utter crap, and the much-ballyhooed community checking simply doesn’t work in the face of pernicion. Check out the scientific sections, and many of the historical sections. Check out the religious entries. (It doesn’t even get easy things like the population of US cities right. My hometown is listed as having 57,000 people. It has less than 15,000.) Wikipedia needs five good editors, not 10,000 mediocre ones.
    Wikipedia was a good idea in the hands of intelligent, well-meaning people. But it has been hijacked in major ways by people will bad intentions. Funny, that’s what’s happened to every mega-popular thing on the Internet, from Usenet to Google to e-mail.
    Here’s what *I’m* getting tired of: Bloggers who who are not particularly inclined to worry about facts taking cheap shots at the New York Times, which gets it right (and cares about getting it right) a whole lot more than they do.

  5. Wow, my first slam. A milestone in my own blogging history, but certainly not the last.
    JimT brings up a good point. Not about blathering, which I clearly hold no monopoly over, but about the inaccuracies of the wikipedia.
    Of course, he also misses the point that inaccuracies plague just about every other medium as well, which was more to my actual point than claiming wikipedia’s perfection. Not only are newspapers susceptible, but so are books (e.g., Steve Weinberg’s Why Books Err So Often And what can be done), which often serve as the final arbiter of journalistic fact checking.
    So where do we stand? In information as well as commerce, Caveat Emptor. And if you don’t know what that means, look it up somewhere.

  6. I think you make a lot of valid points regarding the NYT and accuracy. However, when I read a newspaper I expect it to have a bias, and treat the ‘facts’ accordingly. However, at least with a newspaper I know who wrote an article, and both the writer and the paper itself stand or fall on that.
    If I’m using a reference source I expect something slightly different; an unbiased factual account of whatever the article is about, and I don’t feel that I get that with Wikipedia. It’s almost like going onto the street and asking the first person I pass for information on a particular subject. People who write articles for Wikipedia have a specific interest in the subject, which of course is good, but I feel that very often that passion is going to influence what they write, and as an information professional I have to question the veracity of what the anonymous individual is saying. As a result, I’m going to have to check anything I find there against another source. Of course, I should also check several sources to be sure the information that I’m getting is correct, so it’s pretty much wasting my time using a resource that I know is going to have a bias in it.
    That’s not to say that the Wikipedia has no value; it can be a good tool to use if I’m mildly interested in a subject, or I don’t need to know that the information is 100% correct. It can also be useful for following links, as you point out. However, to answer your specific lego point – a quick search at Teoma returned a great many more links and a wider breadth of information than the Wikipedia article did.
    In his comments Randy says that he likes the enormous wealth of information it draws on, but surely that wealth comes from anonymous individuals who may or may not know about their subject in depth – how can I tell? He also mentions the ever changing nature of the Wikipedia, and it’s true that it is changing all the time, but not necessarily because the factual information is changing; it changes because some people want it to change, to say something different, or to exhibit a bias in a different area. I could also argue that, simply because of the imperminance of the content people may be less likely to check their data 100%, and rely on other people doing so for them. If you have a paper copy of a reference book it is more likely that the facts will be checked, simply because they ARE in black and white on a page. If a publisher is foolish enough to publish something riddled with inaccuracies and bias they may sell a first edition, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to sell a second. Moreover, if I’m going to cite something or someone I want to be able to point to my source, and I can’t do that with the Wikipedia, because the source may well have changed by the time I come back to it.
    I think the concept of the Wikipedia is great, don’t get me wrong. However, the execution of it is fatally flawed, and it cannot, and should not be seen as an authorative source for information. It’s strengths lie in other areas.

  7. Great points, Phil
    There is a big difference in accountability between the Wikipedia and a major newspaper. And between the Wikipedia and traditional reference materials. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Wikipedia will never be as good as either. Yet the Wikipedia remains valuable–it’s often really nice to be able, as Phil says, to ask “the first person I pass for information on a particular subject.” It’s not the best solution, but since it takes all of 30 seconds and gets you a brief glimpse of a subject, it has a different value proposition than either a newspaper or traditional reference material.
    Here the Wikipedia reminds me of the first generation of transistors. Relative to individual amplifiers or other components, the quality of the transistor was lousy. It wasn’t until circuit designers realized that 10,000 of these transistors could do a better job than a dozen or so analog components and at less cost–in essence recognizing that the transistor was a different beast entirely–that it was able to really take over the electronics world.
    Not that the analogy holds perfectly but often, it seems, new technologies require a similar transistor shift in the public mind, when they stop being taken for a bad version of what’s already there and start being seen as a good version of something else. The telephone was a bad telegraph: the sound was bad, the bandwidth limited, few people to call, and no way to leave a message.
    All that said, I agree there is a very big flaw in Wikipedia’s model. While the open source community is good at developing code and I do believe in Eric Raymond’s adage, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” (from The Cathedral and the Bazaar), the Wikipedia’s structured so that few people actually visit pages for which they know something already. Most of the eyeballs go to pages looking for something they don’t already know, making them the worst eyeballs for reviewing accuracy.
    As I mentioned in an earlier and unrelated post about email mailstroms” I made the comment that open and connected communities may reflect democratic and populist ideals but, from a network perspective, also create an overwhelming burden on individual members to remain connected and contribute effectively. To function, such open communities require some very closed “inner circles” where decisions are made, and access allowed or denied. This is the structure of the Linux community, for example, and Wikipedia may require some similarly authoritarian management structure hidden behind it.

  8. […] Despite the criticisms, Steve Rubel remains convinced that the Wikipedia is “the next Google” (ironically, Steve’s post appeared the day before Mr. Siegenthaler’s piece appeared in USA Today). Rex Hammock has useful advice: “Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them.” James Robertson, meanwhile, points out that “real-world” sources of information such as the New York Times, have their problems too, a point also made by Andrew Hargadon. […]

  9. The whole Wikipedia concept is fatally flawed. The notion that one can produce an authoritative encyclopedia without any kind of editorial control is patently ridiculous.
    There is a far greater and more insidious threat to Wikipedia than simple character assassination or falsehood. It can broadly be labelled “infomercial content” (i.e. content that purports to be informative but has a commercial bias). A good example is the entry on Barcelona (Spain). The whole article reads like a tourist brochure and any reference to the city’s pollution problems is swiftly removed by an army of self-appointed censors. There are strong indications that the Barcelona Tourist Board (or its army of acolytes) has effectively hijacked the site. This kind of thing is going to become more prevalent as Wikipedia becomes better known. Basically, there is nothing that can be done to stop this corporate take-over of Wikipedia without editorial control yet such control runs counter to the whole Wiki ethos.
    The idea that “a community of users” is going to apply some common sense criteria regarding content is a mistaken one. In the case of the Barcelona entry, the influence of Catalan/Spanish speakers on both content and style is all too evident. The locals seem eager to “sell” their city to the wider world and to show off their appalling English. Wikipedia not only lacks the control mechanisms to stop them, it also wilfully fails to recognize it has a serious problem.
    [This is a great point, and is a problem of Wikipedia that has come in the last year as its popularity has soared. Any page which can represent self-interest now does–or at least is suspect. –ABH]

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