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anyone can author or edit content to contribute to wikipedia. and thousands do.

for example, 28,258 people contributed at least five times each (active
wikipedians) in october 2005. in the same month, there were 4,573 "very active"
wikipedians (people who contributed at least 100 times that month). there's a
close-knit cadre of about 1,000 volunteer authors and editors who monitor the
newly-submitted edits and articles. articles are categorized by the community as
good or featured articles. in order to qualify as featured articles, they need to
be nominated, meet specific criteria, and gain approval by a consensus of
reviewers.

the world is definitely a better place post-wikipedia. no matter what topic you
need to know about, "google it" and you'll probably get a wikipedia entry with a
great definition and overview, and a good starting point for locating other
resources. what's really great about wikipedia is that it's free to all. it's
available around the globe in many languages. it's more current than any printed
source. most importantly, it closes the knowledge gap.

but there is a dark side. watching the wikipedia foundation deal with the dark
side provides a good source of lessons learned for any company that would like to
unleash the power of customer collaboration to provide tangible results that would
be too costly and time-consuming to create by any other means.

you can't put the feathers back in the pillow

in his editorial to usa today on november 29


(http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm),
john seigenthaler, sr. told this story: "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.' john went
on to say, "for me, that pillow is a metaphor for wikipedia."

john was slandered by someone who maliciously edited his wikipedia biography,
falsely accusing him of being a suspect in heinous crimes. the libelous material
remained on wikipedia for four months, during which time it was syndicated by
other heavily-trafficked information sources, including reference.com and
answers.com. once he was alerted to the slander, john and his lawyer spent four
months trying to locate the slanderer and to seek redress. wikipedia couldn't
identify the culprit. all of its postings were anonymous. wikipedia could (and
did) remove the offending material, but it couldn't pinpoint its source. because
wikipedia is classified as an information service, not as a publisher, it's exempt
under u.s. laws from being libel for the damaging misinformation that was
propagated from its site.

another interesting part of the seigenthaler saga is that according to an article


in editor and publisher (culprit in smearing seigenthaler on wikipedia caught:
http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=10
01658493), the culprit did confess and apologize, but only after he was tracked
down by daniel brandt of san antonio. daniel brandt has been very vocal in his
criticism of the wikipedia foundation on his wikipedia-watch.org web site and has
been labeled as a kook by members of the wikipedia community. daniel asserts that
wikipedia has been structured so that it actually encourages slander, pranks, and
misinformation, and promotes libel. it was nice of him to help resolve the
seigenthaler issue. here's a link to a prescient editorial that brandt wrote
calling attention to many of the issues now under discussion (http://blog.outer-
court.com/archive/2005-11-10-n36.html).

seigenthaler wasn't the only prominent person libeled in wikipedia. norway's prime
minister, jens stoltenburg, discovered in november 2005 that his wikipedia
biography had been inappropriately updated and contained a number of libelous
statements. by the way, europe's libel laws are not as charitable to internet
service providers. and, once print editions of wikipedia are produced, libel will
definitely become a legal concern.

in another high-profile example, in december 2005, mtv star adam curry admitted to
having edited the entry on podcasting to give himself more credit than others for
inventing the popular genre.

how is wikipedia dealing with these "unintended" consequences?

the wikipedia core community of volunteer, dedicated contributors and editors has
been operating under the assumption that their communally-created and refined
knowledgebase will be self correcting. errors will get caught and reported by the
general public who reference the material. misapprehensions or misstatements of
fact will be challenged and addressed.

what the founders and the community apparently didn't think (enough) about is the
possibility of slander, character assassination, and pranks with unintended
consequences.

how wikipedia is changing its modus operandi

experiment: article authors are no longer anonymous. in response to the


seigenthaler flap, wikipedia has entered an "experimental" period of disallowing
anonymous people to create articles on the english version of wikipedia. only
registered (and presumably traceable) users will now apparently be allowed to
create and post articles. in its press release of december 5, 2005, the wikipedia
foundation wrote: "founder jimmy wales....experimentally removed the ability of
unregistered users to create new articles in wikipedia. unregistered users will
still be able to fix spelling mistakes and add to existing articles, but are
required to register a user account before creating new pages. wales said: 'this
will reduce the work load on the volunteer editors controlling contributions to
the project.'"

this is a good first step, but it clearly doesn't prevent the kind of slander to
which john seigenthaler and jens stoltenburg fell victim. in both those cases, it
appears that anonymous editors made changes to their respective biographies. a
better approach would be to require all contributors--both article creators and
editors--to be registered and traceable users. i suspect that the wikipedia
community will eventually decide that anonymity for editors as a public good is
outweighed by the need for accountability and redress.

semi-protection policy approved. there are two types of vandalism that have
plagued wikipedia. the first type is an occasional malicious change made to an
article by an individual (which may or may not get detected and corrected). the
second type is a pattern of rapidly-recurring changes to a particular article. the
most notable of these is the incessant vandalism of the george w. bush article.

to deal with this kind of "piling on," the wikipedia board has approved a change
(which as of this writing has not yet been implemented in software), to wit:
"semi-protection of a page prevents the newest x% of registered users and all
unregistered users from editing that page
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/wikipedia:semi-protection_policy)." if a page is
being repeatedly vandalized, it can be protected by request. as the policy
explains, this is not a pre-emptive measure against vandalism, but it's a response
to vandalism.
published version is reviewed. the wikipedia foundation is now discussing the
possibility of having two versions of the site: a stable, published version and an
editable version. the articles that appear in the stable published version would
have been through a community review process (not necessarily an expert peer
review process). essentially, the author of any "featured article" submission can
request "creative feedback" (also labeled peer review) from the community. the
purpose of the stable site is to improve the quality of and trust in wikipedia
information. presumably if you are reading an article on the stable site, you'll
be seeing neutral information that has been checked (at least by members of the
community) for obvious vandalism, editorial slant, and proper citations.

i think this is an excellent solution. when you're searching for information, you
could check both sources. the stable source would be the most reliable. the
editable source might have more up-to-date information on a topic, but it might
also contain information that is suspect. caveat lector.

dealing with vandalism and slander is different from improving information


accuracy and authority

the wikipedia foundation appears to have taken the first baby steps in confronting
the biggest problem with wikipedia: vandalism and slander. now, it will be
interesting to see how well the community deals with the second challenge:
improving the accuracy and authoritativeness of its articles.

should wikipedia be the last word or the first word?

wikipedians want their collaborative brain child to be viewed as a free


alternative to the encyclopedia britannica and other published works that many
people in the world may not be able to afford. that means that its information
needs to be trustworthy. the "we're as accurate as the other guys" argument seems
to have been bolstered by the special report published in the journal nature,
comparing the accuracy of scientific articles published in the encyclopedia
britannica and those in wikipedia, and essentially declaring a tie. "only eight
serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in
the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia. but reviewers also
found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements: 162 and 123 in
wikipedia and britannica, respectively
(http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051212/full/438900a.html)."

at the same time, wikipedians appear to be contemptuous of people who actually


rely on it as if it were an authoritative source. they are critical of reporters
who take them to task for not being trustworthy, suggesting that reporters, in
particular, should know a thing or two about source checking. in the summary of
its "researching with wikipedia" article, the wikipedia press kit suggests "in
some cases, it's better to use wikipedia as the first step in the research
process, rather than the last step."

in fact, the bbc's bill thompson was praised by one wikipedian for this quote: "i
use the wikipedia a lot. it is a good starting point for serious research, but i
would never accept something that i read there without checking
(http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/4534712.stm)." nice to see at least someone
in the media knows how to use wikipedia!�:)

the most current word and the first word. over time, as the wikipedia foundation
tightens up its quality control and peer review processes, the published/standard
versions will become a more trusted source. but my prediction is that wikipedia
will never become the most trusted source of information--the last word--on
anything. what it will do is fill a hugely important gap in every field of
endeavor. wikipedia will become the first place you go to find out the latest
information on a topic.

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