Wikipedia and Network Effects – by “Michael H – YLT2012”

Who among us hasn’t observed a teacher sneer at the thought of a student referencing Wikipedia over traditional, non-digital sources? These teachers laud the immutability and consistency of books over time; however, this great strength of books can also be a significant drawback: they lack the generativity and adaptability to incorporate changing historiographical opinions, cutting-edge scientific research, and innovative discoveries that a more flexible medium provides. Indeed, while a biology textbook from the 1940’s or an NBA records almanac from the 1980’s is certainly “consistent,” each fails to incorporate new information as it becomes available.

Generativity and informational accuracy don’t have to be mutually exclusive though. Indeed, a study by Nature in 2005 found that in a representative set of 42 scientific articles Wikipedia contained 162 factual errors or misleading remarks, while Encyclopedia Britannica contained 123. (1) To realize just how remarkable it is that a website that relies on a decentralized, peer-production process could rival an information source with 100 paid, full-time editors and 4,400 contributors, it is necessary to look at the underlying framework of Wikipedia. (2)


Using money earned from his humble beginnings in “erotic photography,” Jimbo Wales sought to create a free, online encyclopedia. In 2000 he conceived of Nupedia, which in the vein of traditional encyclopedias hired experts to write articles. Over the course of 3 years, Nupedia managed to churn out 25 articles. At this juncture, Jimbo Wales sought relief in Postel’s Law (“Be conservative in what you do; be liberal in what you accept from others”) and created a revamped version of Nupedia called Wikipedia, which allowed the general public to create and edit articles using wiki software. The rest is history. Today, Wikipedia contains 23 million articles, spans 285 languages, and appeals to 365 million readers around the globe. Currently, Wikipedia is the most widely used general reference website with 2.7 billion page views monthly. (3) The triumph of Wikipedia over traditional, pay-for-use encyclopedias can be partly attributed to Gresham’s law, which can summarized colloquially as cheap and convenient drives out expensive and high quality.

Wikipedia Model

Encouragement that the Wikipedia model—a model that relies on the collective wisdom of a large number of unpaid volunteers—could be viable was provided by the NASA ClickWorkers experiment, which ran from November 2000 to September 2001. In the experiment by NASA, unpaid volunteers visited NASA’s website to mark and classify craters and “honeycomb” terrain on Mars. (4) The study produced two surprising and interesting results. First, people are willing to engage in an unpaid, novel, and productive experience merely for the fun of it.  Second, an amalgamation of data contributed by many unskilled volunteers can be virtually indistinguishable from the output of a trained worker. Thus, large groups of people are capable of producing high-quality work for free.

funny gifs

A Counterintuitive Proposition

It seems hard to fathom that a website that allows users cloaked in a veil of anonymity to edit the content of articles could rival the quality of Encyclopedia Britannica.  In an attempt to understand the success of Wikipedia, it is interesting to observe a city in the Netherlands, Drachten. The city has chosen to forgo basic traffic regulations in an attempt to increase safety on the roads. The experiment in Drachten initially has shown promise. Some attribute this to the difference between the effects of rules and standards. While a rule is a regulation that stipulates precise boundaries and is either followed or broken, a standard is more ambiguous and up to interpretation, calling for people to exercise sound judgment. While people might try to circumvent rules that they perceive to be imposed by arbitrary, external forces, they can become more considerate of others when their personal judgment is called upon. As a result, relaxing rules can have the paradoxical effect of causing people to adhere to the desired behavior more closely. (5)

Putting It All Together

So what do NASA and traffic regulations in the Netherlands have to do with Wikipedia, you might ask? These two anecdotes lend credence to the basic assumptions of the Wikipedia model—that the general public is capable of yielding nearly scholarly work with minimal regulation. While the notion of many small contributions forming a remarkable finished product seems strange with respect to encyclopedia articles, consider the analogy of evolution: slight genetic mutations over time in individual agents within a population lead to the betterment of the species as a whole.  A similar model is used in scientific research: major breakthroughs rest on the small contributions of many scientists. While this model may seem strange for information compilation, it is certainly not novel.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It is unsurprising that many of the flaws that arise concerning Wikipedia are quickly ameliorated; indeed, Wikipedia relies on the procrastination principle—rather than trying to forecast potential problems, it waits for a particular problem to arise and then fixes it. For example, immediately following initial reports of Michael Jackson’s death, “edit wars” ensued on Wikipedia regarding the veracity of these claims. In response to such edit wars, Wikipedia adopted the three-revert rule, which stipulates that an editor should not make the same correction to an article more than three times in one day. Another example of Wikipedia’s remarkable ability to adapt lies in its response to criticism by a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, Robert McHenry. When McHenry pointed out that Wikipedia failed to note the ambiguity associated with Alexander Hamilton’s birth year, a mistake of which Columbia and Encarta were also guilty, users on Wikipedia corrected the error in under a week, a testament to how dynamic the website can be. These are just a couple of the controversies that Wikipedia has responded to effectively and expediently. (For more see Essjay Controversy and Wikipedia Biography Controversy)

My Take

When passing judgment on Wikipedia, I think it is important for us to view it in its proper context. Wikipedia is not meant to be a compilation of flawlessly written, perfectly crafted articles. When such a high threshold for quality is set for content, a bottleneck ensues, leading to an inability to cover certain relevant topics of interest. The three pillars that make Wikipedia so desirable—it’s free, convenient, and unparalleled in the breadth of its information—necessarily lead to a softening of stringent requirements for content quality and review. (You can’t have your cake and eat it too…) As an anecdote in support of the incredible amount of interconnected information on Wikipedia, consider a game that I’m sure most people are familiar with: given topic X and topic Y, start at topic X on Wikipedia and get to a page about topic Y in Z clicks or less. As an example, starting at Harvard Law School I was able to get to Lady Gaga in 4 clicks. (Harvard Law School-> United States->American music->American pop music-> Lady Gaga. Can you beat me?)

I do not understand Wikipedia “hata’s.” I think it is a losing battle to try to argue that due to a small number of factual errors (3.86 per article as determined by Nature), (1) Wikipedia  is completely without redeeming value. At a bare minimum, I think one must concede that Wikipedia is beneficial for obtaining background information on a topic. To return to my initial anecdote, this rationale should at least preclude a teacher from scoffing at a student who includes Wikipedia in his or her works cited page. (Note that I have almost exclusively adhered to citing Wikipedia articles for this blog post.) If you are personally unsatisfied with the content of Wikipedia articles, you can ignore them entirely, contribute towards improving the articles, or pursue litigation against Wikipedia (although you almost certainly will be unsuccessful…).

Personally, one of my favorite qualities of Wikipedia is that it provides a consistent format across articles that are (at least to a degree) targeted towards the general public. As a student interested in technology and the natural sciences, I often have to read about scientific discoveries that occurred in the last couple of years: frequently, I only have two sources to turn to: the original research paper and Wikipedia (a testament to Wikipedia’s generativity). Bearing in mind the complexity of the topics, I seek to wrap my brain around the concepts by skimming Wikipedia before delving into the highly esoteric research papers. I believe that using Wikipedia in this manner is an appropriate use of the website. While many people possess a take it or leave it mentality when it comes to Wikipedia, I believe that it is important to apply basic common sense and reasoning when deciding whether to use the website—if you can tolerate 3.86 errors in your reading on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, then have it; if not, put your laptop up and embark in the direction of the nearest university library.



The Evolution of Wikipedia – by “Anthony F – YLT2012”

At the beginning of my senior year of high school, something amazing happened: San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) finally lifted its years-long block of Wikipedia from its Internet networks. Ever since I was in sixth grade, teachers used to tell my classmates and me about the terrors of Wikipedia, saying it is unreliable and characteristic of bad research.

SDUSD’s policy on Wikipedia, 2001-2010

To SDUSD’s credit, Wikipedia seemed like a pretty sketchy idea back then. The concept of a free-to-access encyclopedia that anyone can edit understandably made administrators wary. The risk of students being misinformed by Wikipedia seemed very high, and so we were taught to avoid the site at all costs and Wikipedia was blocked from school servers. And given some of Wikipedia’s early blunders, like the Seigenthaler incident in which a journalist was inappropriately labeled as a suspect in the murder of JFK, these concerns were not unwarranted.

Of course, this didn’t stop us from using Wikipedia. It was so much easier to just read the extensive and highly informative Wikipedia page on the American Revolution (or any other topic) than it was to peruse hundreds of links on Google. And it was easy to trick your teacher into thinking you didn’t do so thanks to the fantastic “References” and “External links” sections of every article.

Basic strategy for fooling your teacher

It wasn’t until Wikipedia’s 9th year that SDUSD lifted its ban on the website. The response by most students (and teachers too) was “It’s about time.” By 2010, everyone was using Wikipedia for research, whether they admitted it or not. It was easy, informative, and, with time, it was becoming much more reliable. As Wikipedia grew into an increasingly larger community of editors and volunteers, and as its leaders implemented new policies to assure accurate information, incidences of misinformation became exceedingly rare. Vandalism is now practically a non-issue on the site. Try messing around with a Wikipedia article right now. I guarantee it will be fixed within five minutes.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Wikipedia is now flawless, nor will it ever be. No encyclopedia is without errors, and we shouldn’t expect Wikipedia to be either. Temporary issues arise now and again. There are still probably hundreds of Wikipedia articles with inaccuracies that editors won’t pick up on.

The secret to Wikipedia’s popularity

I once met a graduate student who TAs a course in African history at University of California, Berkeley. She was telling me about how she instructs her students never to use Wikipedia as a resource when writing a research paper. She told me that every year, a specific research topic is assigned, and the Wikipedia article on this particular topic happens to have a factual error in it (I believe the error is the date of a battle). And every year, she uses this error to find out which of her students did not heed her advice.

In response, I asked this person why she hasn’t corrected the Wikipedia article. She didn’t know how to reply; clearly, she wanted to continue to exploit the error to uncover the Wikipedia users. I think this example illustrates exactly what is most wrong and what is most amazing about Wikipedia.

In my opinion, this person is as backwards-thinking as SDUSD’s old policy. Wikipedia thrives on its community of users, and it depends on these users to correct inaccuracies. When individuals choose not to do so, the community suffers and that is Wikipedia’s biggest problem.

Yet, at the same time, giving that editing power to the community makes Wikipedia the most powerful and dynamic encyclopedia in human history. When Denis Diderot began compiling the Encyclopédie with Jean le Rond d’Alembert in the 18th century, one of his main goals was to compile the works of many different philosophers and writers in an effort “to change the way people think.” In that regard, Jimmy Wales is the modern-day Diderot, compiling the knowledge of millions of individuals into one of the most extensive projects in recent years. But that project’s success depends entirely on whether we, the community, choose to accept it and allow it to advance.

The Internet User: More Than Just a Troll – by “Leticia”

The Power of the User

In the past there has been a huge disconnect between an average person on the street and their source of information. Once that gap began to close up when people began producing information on the internet, everyone was immediately cautioned not to believe anything they read unless it was said or written by a verifiable source (read: professionals). How could a random, unnamed person compete with Dr. X, who received their PhD after Y number of years of studying and doing research at University of Y?

In November of 2000, NASA set out to see if this divide was appropriate. Clickworkers was a project that had the public identify and classify the age of craters on Mars images from Viking Orbiter. These images have already been analyzed by the NASA scientists but decided to run this small experiment to test two things: 1) can the public handle this level of science and, 2) does the public want to get involved? Their findings would revolutionize the users role on the internet as just a recipient of knowledge. After just six months of being launched with over 85,000 visitors, NASA analyzed the public’s data and concluded that the task performed by Clickworkers “is virually indistinguishable from the inputs of a geologist with years of experience in identifying Mars craters” (Benkler).

Wait, wait, wait…did NASA just prove that internet users aren’t just out there looking to troll and that the internet is more than just a medium for porn?!! Sure, the average user is clearly not smarter than the space geologists at NASA but clearly there is knowledge in numbers. Internet users, when provided with a platform and easy-to-use tools, are a force to be reckoned with. This small project has now set the wheel in motion for one of the most controversial yet most used tool of our generation.

The Rise of Wikipedia

Jimmy Wales’s lifelong dream was to create an online encyclopedia. He initially set out to make Nupedia the old-fashioned way:

In attempt to lessen the burden on the experts, Wales launched a Nupedia wiki which was opened to the public. Just like in NASA’s Clickworker, what happened next completely shocked everyone involved. Within just a few days of its launch, the Nupedia wiki, or Wikipedia as it was dubbed, outgrew Nupedia. Wales, though initially worried about the validity of an encyclopedia created by the people, he saw the potential and ran with it. And rightfully so…

The Five Pillars of Wikipedia

In order for any egalitarian community to work effectively, there has to be some common grounds. Though the members of the Wikipedia community are essentially strangers to one another, it still functions because everyone agrees to the terms set out by the Five Pillars of Wikipedia:

1. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia

2. Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view

3. Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute

4. Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner

5. Wikipedia does not have firm rules

The first three principles aim to ensure that users do not stray from the original intent of allowing Wikipedia to be a comparable of information as professionally created encyclopedias like Britannica while the fourth is there to make sure that these strangers do not sink to chaos and the extreme cruelty that normally results from internet anonymity. The last principle is a beautiful reminder that although there is an original creator of Wikipedia, this is essentially YOUR project as much as the next editor. There are no rules because the people who are editing have good intention. This is information for the people, by the people.

Wikipedia has changed the way in which people interact with information.  For better or for worst, the general public has subconsciously processed these principles and judge what they read based on the expectation one now has of wikipedia editors to not allow for vandalism and faulty information to stay up for long. There is now a standard that one must adhere to when writing and editing Wikipedia articles. If this standard is ignored, Wikipedia users would catch the error and would self-correct within minutes, hours maximum. The general public no longer takes in information as written and demand that at the very least, this standard of credibility and accuracy to be attempted.


Is Academia a Thing of the Past?

Time and money on education or minutes on Wikipedia at no cost?

Before giving up hopes and dreams of entering this exclusive ranking, think of the importance of having true professional. True millions of users contributing small amounts of time is cool for the layman, we still need the professionals to provide the primary and secondary sources that are necessary for the accuracy of Wikipedia. Projects like Wikipedia and NASA’s Clickworker still need people who know what they are doing behind the scenes. Rather than putting professionals in opposition of users, we could start of a great collaboration — free and motivated “interns” alongside professionals working together to make the world a more knowledgeable place. In doing so, the spread of knowledge is no longer a one-way street controlled by the elite few.

But regardless of this beautiful image, these fear of taking over potential doom of academia and the professional markets that depended on being information privately owned has created much criticism of this open-sourced encyclopedia. As Robert Henry, a former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, claims “Wikipedia is unreliable because it is not professionally produced.” Professors are also equally against the growing use of Wikipedia because of the threat it poses:

“Why do professors hate Wikipedia so much?”

Many have spread this notion that since it is user-created that Wikipedia absolutely cannot be accurate. NASA’s Clickworker project showed, as well as the self-correcting system held together by the Five Pillars on Wikipedia, have proven after much analysis, user produced does not mean inaccurate and “shallow source of information.” We have yet to move into the era in which Wikipedia is an acceptable source in academic papers but I have a feeling we are not far from it now that it has become much better at regulating and expanding itself.

The Dangers of Wikipedia?

Dangers of the distribution of knowledge for the people by the people? You must be crazy!!! As wonderful as it is that we now can instantly look up information that is fairly accurate, have we created a generation of people unable to retain information? Are we now so dependent on Wikipedia that we no longer feel the need to commit anything to memory? As this XKCD comic suggest, has it all gotten out of hand? It is still too soon to even begin to look at the effect of Wikipedia on society but these are definitely dangerous scenarios that are not too far out of the question. A little support is good but complete dependency on any one source of information can lead to disastrous outcomes.


An extension or a crutch?


10 Things I Hate About Wikipedia – by “Sam H”

Ahh Wikipedia. It’s hard to imagine life without immediate access to understandable answers to the world’s toughest questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is grass green? What is the meaning of life?

(Warning: gratuitous Wikipedia links continue below)

Many of us depend on Wikipedia for all aspects of work and play but, admittedly, it has its flaws. Still, Wikipedia manages to be one of the most visited sites year after year. What keeps us coming back? Is it an addiction to an ever-growing content base and cordial user community? Perhaps a primal urge to voraciously consume and produce knowledge?


Wikipedia Problems = First World Problems?


Are the problems of Wikipedia solvable? Many have been greatly mitigated but have yet to dissapear. As you continue your Wikipedia editing/using career, here are some issues to consider as the network grows.


10. Abuse and Vandalism in Articles

This slots in at 10 as the community controls and norms in place continue to make this less of an issue. Still, if Stephen Colbert believes in change on Wikipedia, it might just happen. Edit wars are still fairly common and can get nasty. While most of the time, users do seem to be acting in good faith, it isn’t always the case.

As the user base continues to increase and people and machines get better at monitoring and fixing abuse, the prospects continue to brighten!


Wikiality and Truthiness for All


9. Censorship

Just because content isn’t centrally created and distributed, doesn’t mean it can’t be blocked or censored. And if anyone can edit Wikipedia, the government and private enterprise can edit Wikipedia. While censorship across different types of content and distribution methods is certainly a concern, the right to access factual information is becoming a more pervasive human right. Because of the nature of Wikipedia’s content, any obscenity or other censorship argument is weakened. Expect Wikipedia to remain at the frontier of free information.


8. Neutrality

I know. I know. It’s better this way – presenting facts and the facts of others’ viewpoints but I wish just once we could shake things up and have an article that reads like the YDN editorial page. You can be sure that Paul D. Keane. M. Div ’80. M.A., M.Ed. PS would be very vocal on the discussion page and trolls would abound.

The Neutrality standard, like Abuse and Vandalism above, has continued to be upheld more effectively through norms, moderators, and technological infrastructure. This is no easy task, especially in the case of articles involving current events or controversial issues or both. Like Abuse, this issue is unlikely to be wiped out completely, but its adverse effects are generally felt minimally by Wikipedia users.


Controversial and current! (


7. Time Waster

Ok, maybe it isn’t as bad as StumbleUpon or Google Reader, but Wikipedia can really eat up time. This is true for both editing and reading; all those in-text links are just so appealing.  On the bright side, you can’t help but feel like you’re learning something. It just isn’t always clear exactly what you’re learning.


6. Not In Paperback

Call me old fashioned, but nothing gets me up in the morning like the smell of leather bound books and rich mahogany. In spite of the efforts of a brave few, it seems unlikely that Wikipedia will be in paperback any time soon. Aside from the obvious factor of not looking like a stud/studette when you pull the Aa-Ac book of encyclopedia brittanica of your knapsack, with Wikipedia you can’t easily see what comes alphabetically before Aardvark!  Fortunately, there’s still the “open the book to a random page and read game” for the 21st century. The benefits of having everything dynamic and on the interwebs is that it can better keep up with our rapidly developing knowledge base. Also, it’s free and available to way more people. Plus it’s packed with way more information (from way more sources). Oh my! I’ll take that tradeoff any day.


5. Incomplete

Have you ever been devastated to discover a mere stub article  on Wikipedia when beginning to write a paper? Or worse, “The Page Does Not Exist” Search Result of Doom. In spite of the concerted efforts of many, the impressive information trove of Wikipedia remains incomplete. As our information gathering continue to outpace our information synthesis, this issue is unlikely to end in the near future. However, that makes the fight even more worthwhile. Similarly, arcane topics in Wikipedia can often be overlooked due to lack of interest or lack of people knowledgeable on the subject. This can create articles strongly influenced (and biased) by certain groups or no article at all. I mean, who uses 29Si NMR these days anyways?


The task at hand is great; the rewards, immeasurable.


4. Innacurate and Untrustworthy

I had to include this as these charges are often levelled at Wikipedia. Fortunately, there is much evidence to suggest high accuracy (roughly comparable to the oft-praised encyclopedia brittanica in science matters). Of course, certain newer articles or articles with less well-known topics  will be of lower quality but they likely aren’t even included in encyclopedia brittanica. Should you need more convincing, I recommend the people of yahoo answers.


3. Free

Have you ever heard the expression “you get what you pay for”? Wikipedia is free so might it not be very good? There’s no advertising and no fee-per-use/subscription fee (Spotify?). Too good to be true? There must be a catch you say? I got it! They want you to contribute money and/or time (voluntarily). That doesn’t sound too bad actually (at least to me). Well done, Jimmy, Well done. But still, be a conscientious consumer of the information you get on Wikipedia. Not everything on the internet is true.


The Man. The Legend.


2. Formatting

There’s definitely something reassuring about the same format, color scheme, and everything on Wikipedia, but sometimes you just want something new and eyecatching.  Sure, there are skins and other websites you could be browsing, but why not be exciting like facebook and change your features and layout every two days? It seems to be working for them. I guess for now we’ll have to live with the search box on wikipedia boringly and predictably sitting in the upper right hand corner of the screen and take the changes we can get.


1. Research Papers

What’s the first step of starting an essay? If you answered D) search the topic on Wikipedia, you fall into an ever-growing category of people/college students. Somehow, it still isn’t okay to cite Wikipedia. I guess we should go and check the information in the original source, but then does that count as original research? Moral, legal and ethical dilemmas are everywhere! Not to mention, why should I write a brand-new reasearch essay on Abraham Lincoln when there’s already a good one here? Wouldn’t it be better if I improved that one or used that as a starting point?


We’re unlikely to see citing Wikipedia as your main source of information become academically acceptable any time soon. That doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful – it sets up an outline for you to better understand the topic.  In conclusion,it looks like EasyBib will be around for at least a few more years and college students everywhere will be forced to research beyond Wikipedia.


Wikipedia and You

In spite of all these grievances, don’t forget one thing! Wikipedia is, in fact, the best thing ever. It makes lives better, easier, and more interesting and demonstrates the immense power of a norm enforced  collaborative network of people with common values. So go have fun and make the world a better place!

Are We Wikiaddicts? – by “Kristin B”

One of the first things that comes to mind when we think of Wikipedia is the collaborative, democratic effort of the project. Basically, because we like democracy, we like Wikipedia. We like the anonymity, the ability to access millions of articles in one convenient place about anything we ever wanted to know very quickly. We browse the website for leisure, and we even check it during class to check facts (or even to seem smarter than we actually are). It’s permeated our culture in such a way that it has become a verb, like “to Google.” It’s accessible, common, and we use it. A lot.

However, the democratic nature of the site is actually its biggest fault: people that post and edit may not be technical, unbiased experts on particular subjects, and that leads to a lack of full information. A main highlight of the site is the ability to edit articles, but, when it is unclear who is behind the text, it is uncertain how much we can rely on what the text says. It’s true that there are checks in place for some of these things, such as new software that can more accurately find and correct fallacious information. There are internal and well-known checks as well, such as the familiar call for re-editing or note about bias with the familiar broom icon at the top of a contentious article. However,While Wikipedia does highlight bias and invite re-editing, it is true that, especially if there is a reference cited, Wikipedia often does not catch mistakes. Furthermore, it is unclear that the re-editing will actually be more accurate and solve the initial problem. Even worse, we usually don’t react when we see an article designated as such. We realize that the bias or inaccuracy may be there, but we read it anyway as an initial source of information.

To us, these problems should not matter. We are definitely smart enough to ascertain that a popularly-edited site probably contains mistakes, right? We have always been taught that “Wikipedia is NOT a valid source, but a good starting point for background knowledge,” expressly BECAUSE of this collaborative nature. Unsuprisingly, that fails to be the case in many circumstances.

Take, for example, a recent article from the UK in The Register that discusses just how lazy we are becoming. Apparently, even our journalists, the last bastion of accuracy and doggedness in finding out the truth, are relying on Wikipedia as a primary source. Journalists in The Guardian and The Mirror apparently used Wikipedia to write the obituaries of Norman Wisdom, who was a comedian, singer, and actor (yes, I DID just Wikipedia him to figure out exactly who he was). There  were several inaccuracies in the entry, and the Guardian still had not corrected the mistake at the time of the article. Additionally telling is the fact that it was widely known that a reference to and reliance upon Wikipedia caused the errors to occur, but neither publication has acknowledged that this was, in fact, the case.

Poor Norman Wisdom is not the only person to be misrepresented by the inaccuracies of Wikipedia. Some inaccuracies are a little more devastating to one’s reputation than having been mistaken as the author of a song or said to have been nominated for an Oscar. In an interview with NPR, the founding editorial director of USA Today defends that he is not, in fact, likely culpable in the assassinations of JFK or RFK.

In another story, golfer Fuzzy Zoeller sued to find the author of his Wikipedia page, who had slandered him in a number of ways. This brings up a host of legal issues. The anonymity is the selling point, but, at the point that things are inaccurate, how anonymous should things on Wikipedia be? What are the future legal implications of this suit? Does the fact that Zoeller sued at all, clearly caring about a characterization of himself via this PARTICULAR channel show our continued dependence on it? Should Wikipedia be treated like any other news source? How much of our First Amendment rights extend to a place like Wikipedia and the internet?

While this is a humorous example, it does highlight the issue of collaboration: anyone can write anything (at least for a time). The process of tracking these mistakes is slow, and the inaccuracies often go unnoticed, especially if tied to ANY reference (it’s unclear if the references have to be “reliable” or “expert” sources, although Wikipedia likes to claim it won’t allow any unpublished references to contribute to entries). The worst part is that those whom we expect to seek the truth and keep us informed when we can’t do so ourselves are using it as ironclad truth.

Wikipedia is a great tool, but are we addicted and blinded in such a way by the communitarian nature and the ease of access that we fail to see when something is wholly inaccurate?

Conservative collaboration and the Wikipedia model – by “Zachary M”

Below is an interview from The Colbert Report of Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, a conservative version of Wikipedia, and more recently the wiki-based Bible translation, the Conservative Bible Project. (I’m not sure the embedding is working; you can view it here.)

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Andy Schlafly
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election March to Keep Fear Alive

First, let’s back up a second and understand what Conservapedia is.  It describes itself as a “conservative, family-friendly Wiki encyclopedia,” “conservative” being defined as someone who “adheres to principles of limited government, personal responsibility and moral values, agreeing with George Washington’s Farewell Address that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity.”  Andy Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly, (known best for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and feminism in general), founded it as a response to the perceived “liberal bias” of Wikipedia.

The articles have such blatant bias that they almost seem comedic most of the time.  For example, the article Barrack Hussein Obama (note the inclusion of the middle name) contains an entire section on evidence that Obama is a muslim, and the central policies are called the Conservapedia Commandments.  When I show Conservapedia to friends unfamiliar with it, they usually think it’s a joke like Encyclopedia Dramatica or Uncyclopedia.

The general encyclopedic part notwithstanding, Schlafly’s Conservative Bible Project (CBP) (hosted through Conservapedia) sounds just plain bizarre (Colbert puts it: “We already have that; it’s called The Bible.”)  It claims to be correcting for the following “errors in conveying Biblical meaning”:

  • lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ
  • lack of precision in modern language
  • translation bias, mainly of the liberal kind, in converting the original language to the modern one.

The first claim seems to question the original scriptures, which otherwise would violate the purported belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God- it suggests that divine revelation is unsatisfactory.  The second is linguistically inaccurate: the first thing you learn in any linguistics course is that all languages and dialects are equally valid; they just use different strategies to express the same things.  The third is what the rest of the article tries to establish, citing a handful of examples ranging in validity.  Schlafly’s general argument is that all of our views should be informed by our religion, largely meaning the Bible, and this is the source of his conservatism.  To then alter the supposed source of conservatism to make it more conservative makes the belief system circular. (Full disclosure here: I’m a committed Christian myself and consider the CBP to be disturbing.)

Andy Schlafly is a Princeton alum.
The Conservative Bible Project Page

Despite referring to itself as a “translation,” the project page doesn’t once suggest that contributors refer to the original Greek or Hebrew, though there is one link to a Greek text at the bottom of the page.  Its desire to fix translation inaccuracies is clearly not shown in a particularly ironic passage, Revelation 22:18-19:

I warn every man who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book. And if any man subtracts from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will subtract his portion out of the Book of Life, and out of the holy city, and from the things written in this book.

The word “Book” here should be “Tree.”  It results from the fact that the Conservative Bible is based on the King James Version, which for the end of Revelation was translated from Greek to Latin to Greek to English.  The Latin words for book and tree are similar, so that’s probably where the error came from.  This is actually theologically significant, since the “Tree of Life” recalls the Garden of Eden and the “Book of Life” creates a new concept, something like “God has a list of people going to heaven in a book,” which I’m pretty sure I heard once or twice in Sunday School growing up.  However, the CBP editors clearly didn’t care about a more accurate translation- when an error could not be corrected to make the passage more conservative, it was ignored.  It also seems that they didn’t read this passage at all, considering it promises them some significant divine punishment.

OK, so the CBP is inherently contradictory as a concept.  But what can we learn about collaboration from it?  Andy Schlafly makes some interesting assertions in his interview with Colbert:

  1. Isaac Newton claimed that work translating the Bible was responsible for his other insights and those of his contemporaries.  Thus, opening this process up to the general public is a major public service.
  2. This Conservative Bible is produced by the “best of the public,” which is better than experts. (“There are no definitive experts.”)
  3. The objective truth “becomes clear with time” through the work of the community.

If this claim about Newton is true, the first point is perhaps actually a justification for the project.  However, I doubt Newton was translating the Bible with an agenda other than understanding its meaning and am pretty sure it would have been from the original texts.  The other two, however, are much more general points about collaboration.  In essence, No. 2 and 3 are similar to the concepts governing Wikipedia.  Schlafly’s wording just happens to reduce the concept almost ad absurdum.  The Conservapedia Constitution opens with the statement: “Editing on Conservapedia is open to the best of the public – and that includes you.”  It does not say “and that could be you”- everyone is the best of the public, which renders the term meaningless.

The Conservapedia article Best of the public goes on to list “examples” of the concept, including many amateurs who rose to important status, including New Testament authors, Ronald Reagan, and one-hit wonders.   Though the selection is perhaps tailored to a conservative audience (except for examples like “Ice Ice Baby”), this is actually one of the most important sentiments in Internet culture.  As the “best of the public” article notes, any amateur can write a blog and dispense important information.  Wikipedia also depends on amateurs to synthesize information in an encyclopedic fashion, “encyclopedic” being identified by the myriad of policies, policies which were written by these amateurs.

This leads back to the fact that best of the public is presented in an absurd way on Conservapedia, showing an underlying tautology in collaborative web communities:  What is reliable information? That which the established members of the community achieve consensus on.  Who  gets to be an established member of the community?  Someone who provides reliable information. Colbert exposed this by having his fans edit him into the Conservative Bible- they created a clearly false consensus, and to overcome this, Conservapedia leaders had to violate the tenets of consensus.  An analogous situation would be issues of repeated vandalism in Wikipedia; articles prone to biased editing and vandalism, like “Christianity” and “George W. Bush,” tend to be semi-protected, meaning only established users can edit them.

If, however, a large group of people were to register Wikipedia accounts and assert on a discussion page something patently false was in accordance with Wikipedia policy, the community would be hard-pressed to go against  the consensus.  This generally doesn’t happen, since there are tons of Wikipedia users with a contrary opinion (who probably know Wikipedia policies well enough to cite them by abbreviation like WP:FU and WP:NOR and WP:NOTPAPER; as you can see, I’ve been inside this process).  This is actually why Conservapedia formed in the first place;  people with extreme conservative views found themselves quickly barred entry by an already-existing community.  We can only hope that the community is “right,” since such a gigantic status quo is hard to shift; the policies themselves are built around it.  Conservapedia, therefore, is no different from Wikipedia in that regard: an established status quo bars edits that violate the beliefs of the community.  It’s just that Wikipedia seems intuitively much more rational to most of us.

So now, all of the concepts behind Internet collaboration are tautological.  Where does that leave us?  Thankfully, there has been some review from outside of the system to help gauge whether it’s working.  A study in Nature found that Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica.  That can give us some comfort that the system is doing its job and that any community-based inertia isn’t necessarily bad.  I don’t think any study has been conducted of Conservapedia or the Conservative Bible.

But I’m sure if a study did find Conservapedia to be less than accurate, Conservapedia would happily point out its liberal bias.

UPDATE: I just remembered that Andy Schlafly’s daughter Phyllis, who goes to Princeton, posted this on PrincetonFML: “My dad is the founder of Conservapedia. MLIG” An interesting discussion resulted, raising some of the points I raised here. (The OP is indeed his daughter; she posted about it on Facebook.)

Wikipedia: The Next Political Battleground? – by “Magic M”

Paul Krugman notes an interesting phenomenon in his Sunday NYT article here – every major contender (save Mitt Romney) for the 2012 Republican nomination who doesn’t currently hold a political office is a paid contributor to Fox News.  There’s undeniably a connection between the network (and its parent News Corporation’s other holdings, like the Wall Street Journal) and the Republican establishment, and there has been for years, but the much more worrying phenomenon is their ability as of late to craft a symbiotic relationship with the populism manifested by the Tea Party movement.  Politicians like Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell and personalities like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck have developed an almost messianic aura, and their followers often display cultish devotion to ideas that have only the most tenuous grasp on sanity, chief among them the belief apparently held by a fifth of this country that “Obama is a Muslim!” (forget for a moment the implicitly bigoted suggestion the tone with which such statements are uttered conveys) .

 These leaders aren’t just far-right nutcases, they’re far-right nutcases with rather serious and powerful backers.  In return for supporting policies that probably end up hurting the middle-class Americans they claim to work for but benefit the war hawk (hopscotch from Afghanistan to Iraq to Pakistan to maybe-soon-Iran, anyone?) and business tycoons types, they get massive amounts of network coverage and make their election (and implementation of said policies) all the more likely.  Some commentators have suggested this populist movement is a temporary quirk, a function of the economic situation that will blow over quickly after the 2012 election.  I disagree.  I’m worried it has a little bit more staying power than that, and I’m worried it could be the end of democracy as we know it.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little bit melodramatic.  But a culture war is surely coming, and the next battleground may well be Wikipedia.

Constituents in this country rarely reward the candidates who take nuanced and charitable positions on topics.  The televised presidential debates rarely explore the intricacies of the topics they engage on; candidates instead turn to pre-prepared statements and catch-phrases, all in a ceaseless kowtow to the 24-hour news cycle.  The public simply loves to deal in absolutes.  Either we should go into foreign countries and spread democracy by force in every case because damn it, freedom and justice and apple pie demand it, or our last administration was full of sadistic torturers and Christian zealots plucked right out from the Inquisition or Crusades.  By and large it’s the academics who flesh out arguments for or against these policies more thoroughly in research papers – but it isn’t the academics who govern Wikipedia.   It’s the mob.  And there’s no reason to think they won’t turn to Wikipedia to serve their political interests.

Wikipedia has already seen attempts at manipulation by self-serving interests, of course.  Zittrain’s “The Future of The Internet and How to Stop It” discusses MyWikiBiz, a company devoted to polishing other companies’ public image on Wikipedia by editing articles.  Similarly, politicians have an obvious incentive to make themselves look better by tweaking articles before elections, and some have.  Thankfully, it’s fairly easy to stop that kind of thing.  There are not many of these people, and it is easy to spot them.      

But we’re not talking about these aberrations or random vandalism here – we’re talking about concerted nation-wide efforts made to change the entries surrounding political events and people, to subtly influence the perception that everyone who ever reads those articles will have.  If 20% of the country thinks that Obama is a Muslim and even 1% of those people are committed to influencing Wikipedia, that’s still 6.2 million people who might be willing to edit the Obama article once a day.  People can of course change it back, but I’m not talking about the kind of thing that is blatantly obvious – I’m not suggesting that these people will successfully permanently convert (get it?) the “religion” box on the page to Muslim.  But there are other ways to impact perceptions.  What if people worked together to get the structure of the page changed so that greater emphasis was devoted to the speech in Cairo, statements condemning Israel for a variety of policies, and bowing to the king of Saudi Arabia?  The way you present facts is just as important as the facts themselves for the conclusions people draw.  The neutral point of view policy can be invoked, certainly, but it won’t hold in all instances, only the most egregious changes; similarly, no original research means you merely have to turn to one writer or pundit or another on the Republican payroll to provide your backing.  They have scientists who proclaim that global warming doesn’t exist, remember.            

I realize I’ve created somewhat of an apparent contradiction with my suggestion that political stances are polarized but that Wiki edits will be subtle.  My resolution to this is to suggest instead that the polarized political stances provide the necessary motivation to make tedious and subtle Wikipedia edits, but nevertheless ones that can add up to create a definite political advantage in a world where Wikipedia is increasingly viewed as an authoritative institution of information.  Readers beware.

How Wikipedia will save politics – by “Olga M”

As many ambitious young Yalies before me, I spent my summer working for a political organization in Washington DC. Jokes about the tech-cluelessness of politicians aside, I was amazed by the serious lack of reliable information on Capitol Hill. Congressmen got nearly all of their facts from lobbyists, either in direct conversations or in pseudo-objective policy papers written by those same interest groups. The voices of true experts and average citizens were completely drowned out in the cross-shouting of lobbyists and extremists.

That’s why I was so intrigued when my think tank started working on Progressive Map, a Wiki that is designed to provide Congressional staff with (left-leaning) reliable information on issues, organizations, and people. The project follows the trend of political Wikis, like conservapedia, liberapedia, and Rational Wiki, in creating collaborative information gathering projects dealing with political issues. Progressive Map differs in hoping that average citizens will be able to bypass lobbyists and the money-buying-access problem to tell their Congressmen the full truth about the people and policies they are dealing with.

Sounds like  a pipe dream, right?

On first glance, politics seems like the least likely field in which a Wiki format could work. For starters, the self-conscious norm for objectivity and consensus that make Wikipedia work are completely absent from politics. While Wikipedia relies on the basic notion of trusting your neighbor, politics encourages people to form adversarial groups that prove that their particular viewpoint is correct. If the average Wikipedia writer comes to engage in a common enterprise with other users, the average participant in politics just wants his policy to win, and consensus created on the Discussion page is not the way to do that.

Furthermore, the basic rules of Wikipedia are particularly hard to apply to politics. The no-original research policy is tricky in a field that deals primarily with people’s conjectures and expectations. For example, to say that the user thinks that the war in Afghanistan is hopeless would have to involve polling data specifying the demographic that believes in that argument, or else a link to a prominent commentator making that claim.

Meanwhile, the requirement of verifiability will inevitably run into disputes over credibility and representation. For example, is it appropriate to say that Republicans question the existence of global warming just because conservative Christian fundamentalists don’t believe in it? Political groups are by nature heterogeneous, and it is very hard (and potentially very anger-provoking) to generalize about their views.

Finally, the neutral point of view standard would require hard choices about what due and undue weight, as many very prominent political groups (e.g. LGBT groups) have small numbers of clear members and a much wider undefined support network.

Most damning, however, is the problem of editing by vested interests. Wikipedia works in part because few people care whether zucchini is a fruit or a vegetable, but questions of politics have lives and livelihoods at stake. The incentive to try to cheat the system is thus incredibly great.

Already, instances of interference abound in Wikipedia. Marty Meehan raised public outcry when he edited his own entry to delete a reference to a campaign promise, and staffers for many Congressmen admit to doing the same. The entry for President Obama had to be blocked from further editing, after too many birthers edited the page to question Obama’s birth certificate and sparked editing wars . Meanwhile, some blogs claim that there is already a conservative slant to Wikipedia because right-wing advocates are more willing to devote time to promoting causes.

These problems are not exceptions. A political Wiki would have to deal with more than just bored teenagers; it would have to face people who bomb abortion clinics, donate millions of dollars, and spend countless hours demonstrating for the sake of getting their viewpoint out there.

And yet for all of the obvious challenges, there is a glimmer of possibility that enough individuals who care about accountability and bipartisanship will join in on the project and make it work. The requirement for some final result may create a new culture in which users agree to represent others’ views fairly if they get the same treatment. Groups wishing to push their views will simply add a sentence that a particular person believes and advocates for a particular policy, while leaving the debate over the correctness of the beliefs to other spheres. Given how many voters seem disgusted with partisanship, the Wiki should have plenty of users who have a desire to preserve neutrality.

So how could we make Progressive Map work?

Wikipedia’s current format is clearly too trusting and open to prevent sabotage. An alternative could come from a system like Slashdot’s, which uses carefully chosen moderators among logged in and regular long-term users. They would be chosen, and would enforce, a system of Karma, in which comments are ranked from “Most Fair” to “Disruptively Biased.” Additionally, users could rate other users as “Disruptive,” alerting the moderators that a user is abusing the openness of the system. After a user makes a maximum number of disruptive changes, he or she would be blocked from the website.

Progressive Map has the chance to work, but it requires rules and sufficient participation to succeed.

Can Wikipedia Have Its Cake And Eat It Too? – by “Inoli H”

Law&Tech Blog pic

Although in a guest lecture at Yale University last Wednesday Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, said that Wikipedia is not meant to be used as a reference for college level work, his team at Wikipedia certainly seems to be working to make it able to be. Perhaps it’s not their intent to make Wikipedia a viable source for research, but their effort to make it more reliable is showing.

Making Wikipedia more reliable means taking more control over what goes into it and, to an extent, who edits it. Obviously this causes a problem for the utopia-minded Wikipedian who holds to the ideal that launched Wikipedia – creating a free source of information to which everyone freely contributes and from which everyone freely benefits.

However, the need to sensor what goes into Wikipedia is becoming more and more evident as new policies are instituted by the organization. For example, Wikipedia now screens changes to articles about living people. In his guest lecture, Jimmy Wales shared that someone had once edited the article about him to say that he enjoyed playing chess with his friends in his spare time. Although this might be a nice idea, it simply wasn’t true. The rumor eventually found its way to an article about Mr. Wales in a major magazine. Although a minor case, this shows how far false information that is planted in Wikipedia can go before being noticed or addressed. In a more serious issue World Net Daily founder, Joseph Farah, had false information posted about him in Wikipedia that kept recurring even after he would repeatedly correct the malicious errors. It wasn’t until Mr. Farah threatened to file suit that Wikipedia acted on the situation.

Other recent restrictions on editing, besides the page “protection” mentioned above, include giving privileges to established editors to “flag” articles and using an optional feature called WikiTrust that color codes changes based on the reputation of its editor. As you can see, it may be difficult for a newcomer to Wikipedia to contribute substantially to the wealth of information stored on the website. His edits may be color coded as less reliable or placed on hold until a more experienced editor flags them. Changes by more experienced editors also seem more likely to stay on the site than those of newcomers.

This only adds to the other large problem Wikipedia is facing – a decline in editing. Obviously as Wikipedia grows older and there is less to add to it, the excitement of being the first to write about something is less abundant. The growth curve is inevitably becoming less sharp. But if Wikipedia wishes to to continue to grow, the  question then becomes, “How can Wikipedia make itself a more reliable source without adopting xenophobic policies that inhibit new editors?” For this question, I do not readily have an answer, but it seems clear that if Wikipedia wishes to increase its reputation as a source of factual information, it must be willing to sacrifice the dream of having a well of information that is freely editable by anyone.

I imagine that Wikipedia will make this sacrifice as they continue to become more and more fixed in our society. With the release of the WikiReader this past Tuesday it is clear that Wikipedia is not going anywhere any time soon. This contrasts with Santa Clara law professor Eric Goldman’s prediction that Wikipedia will fall by 2010. However, true to Goldman‘s conjecture, Wikipedia is progressively tightening the rein on site edits as it fights to gain more credibility. It seems as though Wikipedia is eating the cake and give up the dream of a 100% freely editable source of information. So much for Utopia. It’s time for Wikipedia to grow up. (Pun intended)

Where No Wikipedia Has Gone Before – by “Drew W”

We want you to imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.

This used to be something only a glassy eyed hippy might tell you*, but over the past eight years (it really was only eight years ago) Wikipedia has changed the way that swaths of humanity access and relate to information. As the GPL and BSD License are to software, the GFDL and Creative-Commons licenses are to documents. Governed by the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-by-SA) License, Wikipedia articles can, in short, be copied and derived from as long as credit is given to the original source and any new works are distributed under the same CC-by-SA license. Wikipedia’s copyleft** makes it not just free to look at; it’s free to retransmit, edit, and download in it’s entirety.

This places Wikipedia in a different category from most of the other large internet entities upon which we now find ourselves (quasi-?)dependent. Of the ten most trafficked websites worldwide, Wikipedia is the only non-profit. It has no trade secrets to protect (even the code the site runs on is open source) and few reasons to block access to its content. When you can’t read a Wikipedia article, it’s likely not Wikipedia that’s blocking you, it’s someone else. This is the case, for example, in China. For a time, Wikipedia was blocked entirely there. Now the site is open, with access to controversial articles blocked. Other countries, and sometimes even schools have attempted to block access to Wikipedia.

The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”***

Whether it’s a damnable injustice or a cultural difference, some are intent on getting Wikipedia and other “undesirable” data to computers behind national firewalls. But for those who lack the appropriate proxy servers, encryption, etc., this task may seem daunting. That’s where something called a “sneakernet” comes in. Though it’s easy to forget, sometimes the best way to move a piece of data is not push it down a wire, but to put it in your pocket****. When you have Internet Police bearing down on you–or you live outside the range of the world’s networks, this may be your only option.

A small project called Information Without Borders (whose wiki homepage is unfortunately subject to constant spam, making me doubt their possibilities for success) is attempting to develop a sneakernet protocol: a program that can be run on computers unconnected by the internet to facilitate data transfer between them. The working plan is to use old cell phones, flash drives, any device whose cost drops after a few years, to carry data payloads beyond the reach of the Internet and behind blockades such as the Great Firewall of China.

Already, people have been using physical means to circumvent virtual roadblocks. In Cuba, there is an underground market for flash drives containing data, videos, anything to which access is restricted. In the United States, other steps are being taken to expand the Internet’s reach. A US project called Feed Over Email will eventually begin beta-testing in Iran and China.

And this is where Wikipedia comes in again: it’s easy to copy and to transport and–within the boundaries of the United States at least–legal too. US developers have already created distributable local storage versions of the encyclopedia that can run on hardware as slow as the iPhone and take up as little as 2 gigabytes of space. In fact, these Wikipedia distributions have already made it onto laptops sent around the world as part of the One Laptop Per Child program. It seems that we are not too far away from a world where the knowledge contained in Wikipedia’s 9.25 million articles (in ~250 languages) can reach and empower you behind any firewall. It just might have to get to you in someone’s pocket.

*Jimmy Wales has freaky-bright eyes

**all wrongs reserved

***this one was brought up by Ben Somers at CPSC183:day 1

****”The moral of the story is: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.” Andrew S. Tannenbaum, Computer Networks (2003). Also, don’t underestimate pigeons.