Wikipedia, and General Credibility

December 14th, 2005 by Potato

There’s been a bit of a scandal lately involving Wikipedia, one of my favourite sites on the Internet. Actually, I wouldn’t call it a scandal so much as a misunderstanding that the media has blown out of proportion.

You see, one of the great things about Wikipedia is that anyone can edit it. That means when I find an annoying typo or innacurracy, I don’t have to lament about emailing the editor or just letting it slide for the next user, I can easily fix it myself. It provides a huge labour force to research, edit, and refine articles, since anyone interested can help out. This is also handy for removing bias, as progressive edits by different people can average it out. (Note that there is still a bias present, that Wikipedia acknowledges: it’s inherent due to the fact that only people with internet access and time go there, as well as interest, which means that the majority of editors are from North America and Europe, and moreover, are of middle class or higher income brackets).

However, it’s also a great source of trouble. Vandalism is a problem, as anyone who wants to defame someone or just break something for the sake of being an anarchist can edit a site. Worse yet are the people who think they know better but don’t, such as the conspiracy theorists who insist on changing things to fit their version of the truth, such as adding references to the illuminati in famous assasinations. It’s also hard to judge the accuracy of details, as people are donating their time to help, which makes them prone to laziness in terms of proper referencing. It also leads to stylistic problems, as you have different people writing different segments of long articles, with no unifying editor (let alone the dissonance between articles). Mistakes corrected in one part may not be corrected in another, leading to internal contradictions (I corrected one recently on someone’s biography. “At age X in year Y…” didn’t add up with the given birthdate, which turned out to have been corrected from the original author’s mistake…). This may lead to “descent towards mediocrity” as continual small changes “average out” what may have been a brilliant article — the sort of problem you get with group-think or committee reasoning.

I mention committee reasoning in particular since when two or more authors disagree on what an article says, there isn’t an expert’s panel or peer review board on Wikipedia to resolve the argument — that is, there’s no appeal to authority available. Often a discussion page will be created where users can argue the points being presented, and often arrive at a compromise. While it does work fairly well, there are cases where it might be preferable to have experts available to resolve these issues, which may eliminate some contradictory footnotes and what-not (though choosing experts, especially in an online only environment, is always a dangerous prospect).

Despite all that, it works for what it is. There is a vast amount of information there, and most of it serves as a decent introduction, often with some pointers for deeper reading. If you notice a page has been vandalised, you can use the “page history” to read an earlier version (and even repair the damage yourself that way, with minimal effort). And the random page function is a terrible, terrible way to encourage procrastination.

Yet with this recent scandal (I don’t have a single good link to refer you to, try google) has people (well, reporters) acting like the sky has fallen or something. Especially with the way they talk about memos being passed around newspapers telling journalists not to use it as a source for articles, and teachers telling students in classrooms not to use it for their papers. I find the whole thing a little silly, and want to pull out one of my favourite quotes from Douglas Adams (I have a lot of favourite quotes from that man).

Of course you can’t “trust” what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back — like newspapers, television or granite. Hence “carved in stone.” What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust — of course you can’t, it’s just people talking — but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV — a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make.

So yes, Wikipedia may have more flaws in that regard than other mediums, since you have a higher chance for someone setting out to intentionally misinform people. But I don’t think it’s fundamentally worse than other tools available: old newspaper articles may contain poor information, and corrections to those are very difficult to track down (I know I’ve seen a few articles in various papers publishing known urban legends, which indicates that at least some reporters do not do very good research on their stories), and regular encyclopedia entries are usually not as in-depth nor as useful in terms of providing “further reading” resources. Moreover, they can become dated very quickly.

In other news, I’ve learned the arcane secrets of how the URLkeeper works. It simply creates a full-screen frame for and then loads the webpage within. That’s why any links you click (including external ones) keep the holypotato domain in your address bar. Pointing to subpages does work within the schema, which is handy if I want to set up links that won’t change if/when I move the site, but they won’t refresh in your address bar (for example, will take you straight to the bookmark icon I made). What this means is that I can make it so that external links aren’t affected by URLkeeper if I simply include a target=”_top” part in the code. I’m doing that for all the new links I add (if I remember them :), but I’m far too lazy to retroactively change the old link. I’m going to fool around with the sidebar to see if it will work for those, but I have my doubts.

5 Responses to “Wikipedia, and General Credibility”

  1. netbug Says:

    You’re excessive posts keep me from reading my queue-cards at work.

    I was pretty sure I told you that that was how the url keeper worked. If I didn’t. My bad.

    Your Rogers rant is exactly the same problem that I have with Rogers… and I work for them. The problem, is an avenue of appeal; how do you get that message to somebody. I’m going to try to get someone in here to read your post (cut-and-paste of course) and hopefully find someone who will listen.

  2. netbug Says:

    Ok. I found out where to put your suggestions internally. Send me a composition similar to your rant and I’ll get it to the right people.

  3. Potato Says:

    Sweet, I’ll drop my thesis and start working on that! (Wow, when I put it like that, it makes me sound like I have brain damage or something).

    You told me that was how to get around the URLkeeper with external links, but I had no idea why it was that worked. Turns out it was pretty obvious, I just didn’t see it *^_^*. Now my problem is, I don’t know how to get at the code for the side-bar links to put that in (though that may not be necessary if Wayfare decides she does want real hosting for her portfolio, on the coattails of which I shall ride like the mooching grad student I am).

    And admit it, you like the excessive posting.

  4. Netbug Says:

    Hell yes.

  5. Netbug Says:

    I like excessive posting.

    (primarily because I can’t edit my posts)