net.wars: a storm in a Wiki

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 January 2006

For John Seigenthaler, the Wikipedia is a feather pillow. "When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of 'gossip.' She held a feather pillow and said, 'If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people'."

Wendy M Grossman

The case of John Siegenthaler's entry in Wikipedia is a perfect rerun of about a dozen recurring net.wars of the last ten to fifteen years: anonymity versus accountability; scalability of social spaces; old media versus new; trust; and so on.

The way some of the mainstream press gleefully went after Wikipedia, you'd think none of them had ever made a mistake. That part of the story was reminiscent of the case that made Matt Drudge's name, his publication of a rumour about then White House aide Sydney Blumenthal. Drudge was accused of giving journalism a bad name (as if the tabloids hadn't done that already) and lowering standards (Rupert Murdoch, anyone?). In fact, in the Nature study comparing Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica Wikipedia didn't come off badly, at least in the science areas the study looked at.

What's really startling about that study, though, is how many errors are in Britannica. What the study didn't cover - and I wish someone would look at seriously - is how the errors match up across fields. Given the demographics of the Net and especially the population willing to spend time contributing to a free, collaborative endeavour versus the demographics of the population Britannica deems expert enough to approach and who are willing to accept money in return for writing entries, I'd expect wide variation across subject fields. I would expect, for example, Wikipedia to be more accurate and more up-to-date on technology subjects, but to play second fiddle in fields such as literature or political history. I'd expect Wikipedia to be way ahead on a certain type of trashy popular culture that for some reason has always done well on the Net which Britannica is more likely to despise.

People have been arguing about anonymity as long as the Internet's been around, as if having a known real-world identity guaranteed anything (this is, of course, a fantasy shared by the current UK government). Reputation matters, certainly, but as Wikipedia's most visible founder, Jimmy Wales, has pointed out, you can establish that without worrying about real-world identity. This is a principle eBay has lived by throughout its history: you often don't know a seller's identity when you're deciding whether to bid on an item. What you go on is their established reputation as reflected in the feedback the system has logged for them. They win your trust by having treated other people well. You don't know the other people (and there have been cases of fraud there, too), but you can, again, trace their reputation through the feedback they've had in a chain. How long you need the chain to be depends on how important the item you're buying is to you, whether that's measured in money, sentiment, or desire for knowledge.

As for scalability, I've had a theory for a long time that the Internet doesn't scale. Not the Net itself - obviously the technical design has held up remarkably well as the Net has grown from a few thousand people to 644,459 million - but the social spaces that populate it. Usenet was (so the nostalgic say) once dense with intelligent conversation, as was email, and that Orkut invitation really meant something when you were only a degree or two away from Orkut himself. Even blogs: a note on a lawyer's mailing list last year pegged the point at which you had to cope with comment spam at about 10,000 readers.

The natural, logical consequence of this theory was that at some point Wikipedia would hit the scale ceiling and find itself in trouble with defacement and abuse. I never thought that would mean that Wikipedia became unusable, just that it was going to have to change.

The moment when any Internet phenomenon is forced to change - the moment of its first big controversy in the public spotlight - is always significant. So far, it seems as though the somewhat subtle changes Wikipedia is introducing are the right kind. Requiring user IDs to edit pages or add new ones will make users less identifiable in the real-world sense, but more accountable in the reputation sense. Wikipedia could, of course, go further, and someday it may have to: it could, for example, require prospective users to submit information about their real-world identities and limit their contributions to the areas in which they have some acknowledged expertise. I hope they won't need to do this; it's much more fun to be able to contribute the weird bits of knowledge you happen to have. My own, so far solitary, contribution to the enterprise was the addition of a note the other day to an entry on Russian spy Morris Cohen; I happen to have seen a play about the case in London's West End in 1983.

But stop and think how truly extraordinary the Wikipedia fuss has been. People were complaining that it had an inaccurate article. My God, how soon they forget! Ten years ago at this time, people were rubbishing the entire Web as riddled with violently opinionated misinformation, and saying how useless the whole thing was (and ever shall be).

We have come an extraordinarily long way if we now have to remind people that the Web, too, is flawed, and that the reason journalists were always supposed to check two independent sources was that one of them, no matter how revered or often-consulted, might be wrong.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).