Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

The not-a-pedia

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 2, 2006
(Issue 2422, Mapping Web Sites)

What's most amazing about the open-process Wikipedia isn't that there is a community-based universal reference attempt online – but that people take it as a serious source of information.

When I teach my Electronic Journalism course each spring at Point Loma Nazarene University, one of the topics we talk about is judging the reliability of information online.

For if the Internet and the World Wide Web have dramatically lowered the cost of publishing and thus democratized the flow of information - and I think it's pretty indisputable that they have – they've also made finding authoritative sources of information a bit tougher.

Or at least figuring out which ones are authoritative and which ones not.

Quick exercise: Which publication are you more likely to believe: The National Enquirer or The New York Times?

The vast majority of us will select the Times. Why?

Because over the years, it has had a far better track record of having its reporting verified as truthful – and of correcting its mistakes.

Which isn't to say the Times is infallible.

But by and large, most of us find it credible in ways that, say, we don't find The National Enquirer – or purely partisan publications like the leftist Mother Jones or right-leaning American Spectator.

Reference without authority

Which brings us back to the Wikipedia, the supposedly revolutionary community-based encyclopedia where anyone can submit entries or edit existing ones.

The theory behind the Wikipedia is that more established information sources are biased, too far behind the times, or otherwise so chronically faulty that they cannot be treated as reliable – and that by having a community-based reference, any errors of fact or outright biases can be corrected much more quickly.

Supporters of the Wikipedia point to the success the blogging community has had in holding the media accountable for error and/or bias in the past year, with the highlight being veteran CBS news anchor Dan Rather being sent into retirement with a cloud hanging over his reputation because of a flawed story he reported on President Bush's Vietnam-era military service.

While the bloggers have served as a highly effective check on the information monopoly formerly held by the professional media outlets, trying to apply that argument and/or model to the Wikipedia isn't so simple.

See, when the TV networks or a major newspaper or wire services is publicly corrected by the bloggers, it's not just the bloggers who report on this. Eventually, the mainstream media do so as well – and so we all hear about it.

But with the Wikipedia, the allegations of bias and any efforts to correct said bias all happens very quietly. To be sure, the Wikipedia is very good about keeping past entries and a history of changes accessible from any entry. So you can go back and read previous versions.

Yet unlike with the Dan Rather incident – in which CBS eventually withdrew its allegations against the president and everyone except a few conspiracy theorists agreed the story was factually wrong – there is never a sense of closure on Wikipedia. There's always a lingering sense of the cliff-hanger, as if we just wait until tomorrow we'll find out that Bobby Ewing is still alive.

Of cousre, he'll be dead again the day after.

And there lies the problem: The Wikipedia isn't a reliable because it's not even stable.

None of which is to argue that even the revered Encyclopedia Britannica was perfect. Was it biased toward the Europeans in its version of the conquest of the Americas? Sure. Blind toward the Civil Rights movement early on? Absolutely.

But there's a world of difference between pointing out someone else's flaws and producing a flawless work yourself.

A partisan battleground

Take the Wikipedia's entries on Israel. Constantly being revised and appended, the Israel entries have been a mess of political posturing and anti-Semitic bigotry (the day I checked most recently, it was actually fairly even-handed for a change). They seem to change from day to day, depending on who has submitted a new entry or re-written an old one. Given that there are a seemingly infinite number of axes to grind in the Mideast, the idea that an open process will somehow distill truth – or at least historic veracity – is asking a lot.

And the Associated Press reported in April that political campaigns back East were using Wikipedia's openness to alter their opponents' entries or pad those of their candidates - all to gain political edge.

Say what you want about the Encyclopedia Britannica, but they weren't re-writing entries every day to suit some political whim.

That's the main problem with the Wikipedia – there is no deliberative process by which an approximation of truth can be arrived at. Sure, perceptions change over time – current views toward the conquest of the AmerIndians are much different than just 50 years ago. And as we come to an appreciation for the fact that Indians were treated fairly by neither the U.S. government nor the early history writers, we should update the way we present that history to reflect our newfound empathy toward those who were conquered.

Just perhaps not every day.