Al Fasoldt, staff writer at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, writes about how untrustworthy Wikipedia is based on an oh-so-trustworthy email from a librarian. Mr. Fasoldt asserts that Wikipedia is not a verifiable authority and that it is it is not trustworthy. Mike from Techdirt tries to explain Wikipedia to Mr. Fasoldt and receives insults in return. For those of you who haven't yet taken a good look at Wikipedia, you should. It is a community built encyclopedia where anyone can edit any of the 300,000+ articles in it. The fact that anyone can edit the pages appears to be why people like Mr. Fasoldt question its authority, but that is that exact reason that it has authority. Any comments that are extreme or not true just do not survive on Wikipedia. In fact, on very heated topics, you can see the back and forth negotiation of wordings by people with different views on a topic until, in many cases, a neutral and mutually agreeable wording is put in place and all parties are satisfied. Tradition authority is gained through a combination of talent, hard work and politics. Wikipedia and many open source projects gain their authority through the collective scrutiny of thousands of people. Although it depends a bit on the field, the question is whether something is more likely to be true coming from a source whose resume sounds authoritative or a source that has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people (with the ability to comment) and has survived.

I believe that Wikipedia is helping to revive the encyclopedia as a form and it hurts me to hear such ignorant criticisms. Having said that, Kara Swisher of the Wall Street Journal, Dan Gillmor of the Mercury News and many others have already written tons about Wikipedia so maybe I'm overreacting to an isolated case of ignorance and insulting the knowledge of my readers in the process...

Anyway, I was on the jury which gave Wikipedia the Golden Nica this year, the highest prize in the Digital Communities category for Prix Ars Electronica. I will be going to Linz, Austria next week to attend the festival and will be meeting the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. More on Wikipedia then.

via Boing Boing

27 Comments

This could lead to some interesting discussion on trust versus authority. Thanks for pointing these articles out.

Hi Shelley.

Exactly. Developing trust is so different than developing trustworthiness. So much of "truth" is based on authority which is brokered and bought.

Also, to call myself on it before someone else does... It IS a bit ironic that my post is laced with references to authoritative awards, and newspapers.

That's all. Ironic. ;-)

If I may share a view:

"Truth" is a consensus.
An individual can put forth a theory and an evidence, but only once the majority have accepted it does it become "real".
Ascribing "authority" is a relinquishment of the individual's right and duty to participate in the shaping of reality.

Authoritarianism. Representative government. Democracy. Gasp... emergent?

Wikipedia is *the* example *par excellence* of how these communication technologies have the potential to change much of what we take for granted. I can totally see how some people would find that "dangerous"...

;)

I am the biggest fan of wikipedia there is, and was involved in its sister project, the Nupedia, in its early days. That said, this kind of debate seems to me to be unfortunately polarizing. The article points out Wikipedia's own disclaimer, which reads in part:

"Therefore, please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by professionals who are knowledgeable in the particular areas of expertise necessary to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information about any subject in Wikipedia."

Mr. Anthony, above, suggests that knowledge is the equivalent of public opinion. The consensus among Americans is that Sadam Husein was directly involved in the attacks on September 11. Popular opinion regarding the flatness of the earth and the motion of the heavens had, at various times, little to do with the truth. Unlike the school librarian, I think that wikipedia is an excellent resource. But unlike Mr. Ito, I think untruths absolutely can survive on Wikipedia.

And so, I am taking the "Techdirt Challenge." Over the next several days I will anonymously insert several errors into Wikipedia, of various types. After two weeks, I will check to see if they have been corrected (and, of course, correct them if they have not been). I will be very surprised if they do not survive.

Well, to pick a nit, "truth" may in fact be a concensus, but truth is not. Or perhaps I should say "reality" ("that thing which, when you stop believing in it, does not go away").

But I digress before I start.

l'affaire Fasoldt has interesting resonances, and I think it might be a bit of a bellweather for backlash against independent concensus-forming. With regard to Wikipedia, it's not so much that it contains dangerous ideas, as that its reason for existence (to place the control of our concensus story in the hands of the people who end up having to live it) is contrary to the interests of powerful entities. We think of these as being corporations or nation states, but cultures (if I can anthropomorphize them for a moment) have a stake in the game, too.

A public high school librarian is an information gatekeeper. Fasoldt (who makes his living as a local technopundit) is an information gatekeeper. Their rice-bowls -- or at least, their worlds -- can potentially be upset by people going to Wikipedia and from there moving on to finding reliable answers by themselves. That's what this portends, perhaps: A bunch of information gatekeepers waking up to realize just how dangerous free information is.

And what we need to really be afraid of is the proliferation of a population of alternate "wikipediae" that co-opt the operational model to put up a de facto barrier between their community and the *real* Wikipedia -- I can imagine Christian Wikipedia, Muslim Wikipedia, Free-Market Wikipedia, Branch Dravidian Wikipedia....

Isn't there any lawsuit concerning Wikipedia validity yet?
While I find Wikipedia very handy to pick up some instant knowledge and its policy about neutrality is nice, I know there are some Wikipedia entries solely dedicated for promoting some extreme advocacy as if they're neutral views. As no one complains about them they persist there but it's not right thing I think. Real political process in democracy is based on collective votes that has power of resolution, and it has courts to judge right and wrong, but Wikipedia is collective voices without responsibility. It lacks function to protect minorities at all. When a dispute occurs between a big group of people vs another big people of group you may expect healthy discussion (or plain DoS attacks?) on Wikipedia, but between tiny individuals and a big group you can't expect it. This e-democracy thing is very primitive (therefore it has kind of fresh post-modern appeal at the same time)

eric:

And what we need to really be afraid of is the proliferation of a population of alternate "wikipediae" that co-opt the operational model to put up a de facto barrier between their community and the *real* Wikipedia -- I can imagine Christian Wikipedia, Muslim Wikipedia, Free-Market Wikipedia, Branch Dravidian Wikipedia....

When looking from macro scope, internet itself is a larger Wikipedia. It has Google for key-value association. Google returns many results at one search usually, while Wikipedia returns one result or none. Internet is more chaotic than Wikipedia, but more neutral than Wikipedia that has Wikipedia moderators. Every archiving act necessarily implies hidden political missions as each ancient Chinese emperor had created a new history tome for his own. Those encyclopedia are not exception, so we need many variants as possible. For information politics I recommend you to believe only in plain anarchy, and Wikipedia variants are very much welcome. Wikipedia already has different language versions, so it's only a start, I suppose.

Alex said what I wanted to say pretty well. I'll add, however, that while the back-and-forth of community editing may, over time, result in information with significant balance and validity, there's also the very real potential of an unsuspecting user coming across an article during a pendulum swing. With print reference sources, that back-and-forth occurs as well, but it's typically invisible to the end-user, who always receives the post-debate version.

What about an unsuspecting user coming across a CNN/Fox/whatever news outlet we wish to mention report and, god forbid!, believes it to be "authoritative" and "true"?

Just being devil's advocate as I know full well that to function within this world we've created for ourselves we *must* hold some things as absolutes. ;)

Joi, it is not ironic that you would play both sides. Trumpeting trust and concensus whilst talking up your authority for this award that award. You have always done that - because in the end you have always sought the vindication of celebrity rather than that given by self esteem and truth. That is in truth why you spend so much time hopping from this place to that both physically and online and so little in quite contemplation with your self.

I am amazed that the article in question here cites teachers and school librarians as concerned about Wikipedia's value. It is of course part of the English/Communications curriculum (in most countries I'm sure) to teach researchers to question the 'who/when/where' of every source they use. I taught in a typically underfunded state school in the UK. When pupils researched in the library, they had only encyclopedias dating from the 1970s. As an English teacher it was important that I taught the pupils to question all sources, as these dated sources were just as 'dangerous' to young researchers as any online source. For pupils today, the teaching of research skills needs to emphasise that a variety of sources must be used, and all must be questioned.

And that's one of the key points of Wikipedia, isn't it, that all sources are open to question?

Alex, KL and Liz. Good points. I think Carrie's view is very practical. Shelly just posted her thoughts and says, "For instance, I do find the Wikipedia to be a good resource. Do I trust the information written there? Let’s say that I trust it to be ‘a’ good source of information, but not the only one." I think that's the right approach to Wikipedia. I think the aim should be to educate people on how Wikipedia works, rather than dismiss it as an not authoritative. As Boris points out, maybe we are now empowered not to focus on authority, but on figuring stuff out ourselves based on a diverse set of inputs and a deliberative process. I still believe that in many ways it is better than many traditional sources that most people have access to or are equipped to judge. It also has a plethora of links which provide instant access to the sources that Wikipedians are drawing from. I think what librarians should be teaching students is how to use Wikipedia and the Internet, rather than dismissing it. Comments such such as "100 times zero is still zero" (Reporter quoted from email in Techdirt) completely miss the point.

I've actually been developing (mostly in my head) a similar wiki-like project that would provide a translation service for different languages. It would rely on people offering their use of certain words and thus create a table of authority based on real world usage. Would be accurate for new terms and slang as it came up.

Been contemplating this for nearly a decade, but haven't got it off the ground just yet.

You can compare this discussion to the "Heisenberg uncertainty principle". Wikis show the momentum of an information particle, whereas paper encyclopedias try to pin down that particle on a static definition. In short: Wikis are living. Conventional encyclopedias are dead paper.

The Wikipedia is a great knowledge base. And it is fun.

I like wikipedia and I use it often, but only really to find names and key-words which I then use to do other web-searches. I would never trust anything I read in Wikipedia. In that sense, I consider it a great resource, but extremely non-authoritative.

Aside from coming across several articles which (even though I agree with the authors' points of view) I found very one-sided, not at all "neutral", I always have to wonder if the day, hour, minute, second that I read the article, has it just not had an opportunity to be "proof-read" by the community? Maybe tomorrow someone will come along and "correct" it, but I still leave with incorrect information.

I know that in a Wiki you can review the history of changes, and take a guess, but I would venture to say that most people using this as a resource do not know this. Not to mention that many other sites use the freely available content in their own encyclopedia, but they do not have links to the change history, or even evident disclaimers about how the article was written.

As for Fasdolt's article, I didn't really see any anti-wikipedia sentiment, he was simply pointing out the obvious, and that which is also in the wikipeida disclaimer.

We get mad at fox for passing of garbage as news, and applaud people who criticize them, so how can we get mad when someone reminds us to be careful what we believe just because it is, for the time being, loosely connected to an anti-mass-media movement? Obviously we have to question *and criticize* both Fox and Wikipedia equally.

I also cringe when you say that they "gain their authority through the collective scrutiny of thousands of people."

How do I know how many people have scrutinized the article I am reading? While as a collective whole it is scrutinized by thousans, I doubt very much that there are thousands of experts scrutinizing each individual article related to their field.

I posted a summary of this thread and mention of a wikipedia fact checking project I'm trying to foster:

http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2004/08/29/wikipedia_reputation_and_the_wemedia_project.php

I am reading "The Wisdom of Crowds" at the moment, which I got from Get Real and I just want to advise you all to read it since you are all abviously very involved in this conversation about the wisdom of "experts" versus that of the "mob".

Are there any eagles left. Any Jonathan Livingston Seaguls? Yes there are and guess where they are? Where everyone else isn't - yet. And when everyone else is there - guess where they will be.....somewhere else. Anon

Imagine. We are all on a plane - far above the ground. Suddenly the Pilot has a heart attack. I wonder whether they would ask on the loud speaker for everyone to develop a consensus on the best way to deal with this condition? Or just might they ask for all doctors, yes, maybe even medical professionals with expertise and experience of dealing with heart attacks? Oh, and now guess what, the Co-Pilot just had a heart attack and the autopilot is down. Do we hear a voice on the loud speaker asking for a consensus (maybe even a Stearing Committee) to decide how to fly the plane. Or maybe just maybe do you think that we would hear a voice asking for someone with flight training and perhaps even a specialist in flying 747's to come quickly to the cabin. Oh yes, and at the current trajectory and the current speed the plane will hit the ground in 5.3 minutes. Or is that subject to the uncertainty principle - maybe we should build some consensus. Maybe if we get our heads together mathematical and physical laws could just bend to suit the whim all the passengers. Or maybe we should just all consult Wikipedia!

Alex Halavais wrote @5:
unlike Mr. Ito, I think untruths absolutely can survive on Wikipedia.

Actually, “survival” is a statistical process. Wikipedia is a real-world example of the Condorcet Jury Theorem at work: the probability that a jury formed of “reasonably competent” members will reach a correct decision asymptotically grows towards one as the jury’s size grows. Here, “reasonably competent” means that each jury member is more likely to vote for a correct decision than not. As Wikipedia’s contributors are self-selecting to some extent, with topical knowledge and/or competence being a significant selection parameter, it is reasonable to assume that CJT’s criterion for eaching a correct decision is met.

What Alex Halavais is attempting to do is as meaningless as arguing that a coin is not fair by pointing out that after, say, N actual coin tosses we didn't exactly obtain N/2 heads and N/2 tails; what Joi is saying is simply that if the coin is fair, the number of heads and tails will asymptotically be equal.

Experts are important. None of us would be sitting at our computers contributing to the internet without substantial efforts by software, hardware, and networking experts. Many of us pay for our internet connections by getting other people to reward us for our expertise. To then declare that a source which freely admits that it substitutes community consensus for expert fact-checking *must* be authoritative strikes me as a bit ridiculous.

There's a simple solution, though. If you want Wikipedia to be, and deserve to be, known as a trustworthy source, contribute to it. If you find a mistake in an error you know about, fix it. That's the point of wikis, right?

Can anybody in this debate *please* try to look at wikipedia not from an engineer's, but from an unsuspecting user's point of view?

Well, so the knowledge building process in wikipedia is great because milliosn of people can argue over articles until they're correct. Cool. But that's exactly why it's flawed as an encyclopedia.

Imagine a user who needs to find a bit of information and consults a wikipedia article. Can this user be certain that the article is correct as he finds it at any given point in time?

The average unsuspecting user doesn't care about knowledge building processes, he is only interested in the result of such a process. Wikipedia, however, is one giant process that, by its very nature, is constantly changing its shape. For the average user (who does not care at all about version histories of the articles) there is no way of telling whether an article is more in flux or more stable, or whether it has just been defaced by a person with a sense of humour like Alex Halavais.

That is why, if anything, Alex's experiment proves that the concept of building a wiki-based encyclopedia is flawed - Alex proved that the articles in it are subject to constant, and at times even arbitrary, flux.

Encyclopedias are supposed to give information seekers correct information at any given time, not prove that they are self-repairing knowledge-building processes.

Katherine is right about the point of wikis - "if you find a mistake, fix it". However, the point of an encyclopedia is very different: it's "if you don't know something, look it up". I won't use an encyclopedia to look up something I already know, merely to check if the encyclopedia contains the correct information. I'll look things up that I don't know because I can trust the encyclopedia to be correct.

This is not the case with wikipedia, and this is why it is flawed.

As a user, I feel that the chance that a Wikipedia article contains relevant, useful, and accurate information is really high. Quantum theory suggests that the path of each individual particle is never certain, but only probable. But it doesn't stop Newton's laws from being useful the majority of the time. I wouldn't use the Wikipedia as an authoratative source for extremely sensitive applications, but I would definitely use it for almost any other.

David Chen. I find it great that you can use Wikipedia for almost anything but for extremely sensitive applications. I must even say that I do exactly the same thing - with the internet.

Horst write @23:
Alex's experiment proves that the concept of building a wiki-based encyclopedia is flawed - Alex proved that the articles in it are subject to constant, and at times even arbitrary, flux.
Encyclopedias are supposed to give information seekers correct information at any given time, not prove that they are self-repairing knowledge-building processes.

Some people seem to think it desirable that information should be received without questioning, in comfortable dollops, from trusted, "authoritative" sources. In that utopian view, resources whose interpretation require the exercise of judgment, or some measure of critical thinking, might be considered to be too demanding for the vulgum pecus, and thus "flawed".
By that kind of logic, a car would be a flawed tool for transportation as its user must first learn to drive, or a piano is a flawed implement for music because one has to learn to play it.

Horst [comment 23]:

For the average user (who does not care at all about version histories of the articles) there is no way of telling whether an article is more in flux or more stable, or whether it has just been defaced by a person with a sense of humour like Alex Halavais.

There is indeed a very real concern about the inability of the current software to distinguish between stable/evolving or checked/defaced articles. There are currently various discussions underway as to how a "Version 1.0" can be produced that would be worthy of printing or distributing on "official" CD-ROMs (one of the project founder Jimbo Wales' dreams is that the Wikipedia will help people from "less advantaged" parts of the world); and it is not an easy question to answer.

That is why, if anything, Alex's experiment proves that the concept of building a wiki-based encyclopedia is flawed - Alex proved that the articles in it are subject to constant, and at times even arbitrary, flux.

This, however, is not a fundamental feature of Wikipedia, only of the current implementation. In future, it is likely that the wiki-process will be used to build, improve, and correct articles, which are then verified before being labelled as "authoritative"; under such a system, arbitrary vandalism would not only be corrected, but would be invisible to genuine end-users (i.e. "users not engineers" as you put it) OK, so we're not yet sure how; that's a challenge, but it's not an impossibility just because we want to balance it against the clear advantages of the wiki approach.

The Wikipedia interface already diverges quite significantly from the "classical" WikiWikiWay - it has separated discussion from content, the ability to protect pages, ban users, and yet do so to some extent within the spirit of openness that the project is founded on. So yes, it has had to become more complicated than a traditional wiki, and gets ever more so as it approaches in similarity to a traditional encyclopedia. It is neither the same as a "normal" wiki, nor is it the same as a "normal" encyclopedia; nonetheless, it has many real uses for real people.

In short: it's not a wiki, it's not an encyclopedia, it's the one and only Wikipedia; and as it matures, it will find it's own, authoritative, place in the world.

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