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Expert Opinions

by Zak Mucha
March 9, 2006


A "people's" encyclopedia sounds like an egalitarian endeavor offering a degree of power to those of us without the access to influence culture and disseminate information. Allegedly, hundreds of thousands of people have contributed to Wikipedia since its inception in 2001, and this may be true since the requirements for volunteer editorship consist of internet access and the manual dexterity to type.

The New York Times recently noted that Wikipedia "is now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world." The site receives 2.5 billion page views a month and the number of articles posted is "close to two million," with at least 1000 articles offered in 82 languages.

Some people view the site as entertainment, searching for factual errors the way movie buffs look for anachronisms. Others visit the site for information, assuming wrongly, despite the clear disclaimers, that the entries are verified and peer-reviewed.

I had never looked at the site until my brother posted an addendum to Allen Ginsberg's entry. From Andrea Dvorkin's memoir, Heartbreak, my brother quoted the author's personal experience with the person she previously idolized. Ginsberg, Dvorkin wrote, supported NAMBLA not out of any libertarian ideology: "He meant it. I take this from what Allen said directly to me, not from some inference I made. He was exceptionally aggressive about his right to fuck children and his constant pursuit of underage boys."

I thought my brother had scored a righteous shot against Ginsberg apologists who believe the subjective criteria for poetry overrides basic human rights and Ginsberg's beliefs regarding the sexual assault of children. In his addition to the Ginsberg bio, my brother cited the author, book, and page number, which I assumed was standard for any Wikipedia volunteer edit.

The reason the misnomer "knowledge is power" holds some truth is that knowledge is not equally shared. But "power" is power. Knowledge sometimes comes with it, though not necessarily. How knowledge is disseminated, along with the option to decide what constitutes knowledge—or information, or news, or what's "hot"—weighs heavier on the power continuum than the actual knowledge itself.

The New York Times announced the Wikipedia launch in 2001 by saying, "What they have accomplished suggests that the Web can be a fertile environment in which people work side by side and get along with one another. And getting along, in the end, may ultimately be more remarkable than developing a full-fledged encyclopedia." Wikipedia was to focus on a communal knowledge that would prevail over "an attempt to pit individual opinions against one another." Jimmy Wales, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, said, "There's kind of this real social pressure to not argue about things."

"The Maury Povitch Show" is also based on a sort of "communal knowledge" and "social pressure." The problem with communal knowledge and social pressure is that some are not part of the specified community and/or are not touched by the pressures to follow etiquette.

Who decides on this community and how do they create their rules? While the DSM-IV can be a valuable clinical tool, citing any diagnostic criteria on "The Maury Povitch Show" would be a waste of time.

John Siegenthaler, former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville, received an anonymous addition to his own biography on Wikipedia in May of 2005. He was, according to this anonymous contributor, "... thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."

Despite Wikipedia's previous claims that factual errors and falsehoods are caught "within a median time of under five minutes," the misinformation about Siegenthler lasted 132 days. Three days after the misinformation was originally posted, a Wikipedia volunteer corrected a misspelling of the word "early."

This bio information was vacuumed to other sites, such as Answers.com and Research.com. Siegenthaler, a former editor at USA Today and founding member of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, did not want to sue, but he wanted to find the responsible party.

Siegenthaler went public with this defamation, noting that the only way he could find this contributor would be to subpoena Bellsouth, the internet provider, who would not disclose customer information. Wikipedia stated they did not have any information on the volunteer editor.

A week later, Brian Chase of Nashville came forward and admitted he had posted the bogus bio of Siegenthaler. He thought the site itself was a gag, he said, and was trying to shock a co-worker who, like, Chase, was aware of the respected Siegenthaler family history in Nashville. It was just a joke meant for a pal.

Wikipedia's disclaimer acknowledges the site is an open-content collaborative encyclopedia and, "The structure of the project allows anyone with an Internet connection and World Wide Web browser to alter its content. Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by professionals with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information."

Even though the Siegenthaler incident has prompted volunteers at Wikipedia to state they are looking for more reliable methods of verifying information, they also warn, "Wikipedia is not uniformly peer reviewed; while readers may correct errors or engage in casual peer review, they have no legal duty to do so and thus all information read here is without any implied warranty of fitness for any purpose or use whatsoever. Even articles that have been vetted by informal peer review or featured article process may later have been edited inappropriately, just before you view them."

Daniel Brandt, a 57-year-old book indexer by profession, has been fighting Wikipedia to correct his own biography with much less success.

Without knowing the facts of Daniel Brandt's life, one can see for him or herself the sniping that has gone on between Brandt and the volunteers at Wikipedia (www.wikipedia-watch.org). For Brandt, this is a Kafkaesque fight where he has been told that he does not have the right to "correct" information about himself and, basically, should stop complaining. For the bloggers and volunteers who have posted to chats regarding Brandt and his Wikipedia Watch, he's a paranoid crank.

The communication between these sides folds in on itself with false postings, alleged quotes, and threats of possible lawsuits. One blogger sent false information to Brandt under an assumed name to "prove" that he's presenting paranoid delusions, though that doesn't exclude the possibility that people are screwing with him. If there is any display of power here, it comes from those who can inflict damage on others.

Abuses of power can be malicious, idiotic, or inadvertent. In the case of the latter, the proper response to its identification should be the perpetrator's question: "How can I make amends?"

If the societal pressures that shape Wikipedia derive from blog-sniping where any punch can be thrown safely from cyberspace, and that sounds fun, jump in. Wikipedia says they are not responsible.

If hard information is what you are looking for, consider the community providing the sources.

Paris Hilton has the cultural capital to make a dent in mass media and that capital comes not from any inherent or learned skills, but from a family fortune without which her greatest contribution to the world would be her signature on an organ donor card.

If she woke one morning deciding to write a book on the benefits of psychic surgery, she'd most likely have a book contract by the end of the business day, whether or not she knew how to cure cancer with tree bark and lemongrass.

And she could get her cures posted to Wikipedia if enough people bought her book and accepted her recipes as part of their own "common knowledge."

If Paris isn't of the appropriate cultural quotient, then pick any celebrity with a political stance or a cause or a children's book to plug. Pick the hippest new musician with no basis at all for his widely known opinions. That's the access we don't have. So we fight via internet, blogging away in the hopes that someone other than our best pals are reading along.

Research is practiced in order to put information into action. Research based on a common knowledge—better known as popularity—formally unchecked becomes a liability for the researcher.

Given the clear warnings provided by Wikipedia, we have to realize the difference between entertainment and information. And we should protect ourselves accordingly from the internet-research equivalent of Reality TV where experts can be self-styled and protected by anonymity.

And finally, I just noticed that my brother's addendum to the Wikipedia Ginsberg bio has been "edited" away, appeasing a community I wouldn't want to claim as my own.

© 2006 Zak Mucha. All rights reserved.



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