Hasten slowly: how to change Wikipedia

Posted: Dec 18, 2005 12:05 AM

You can't step into the same Wikipedia twice.

That's what Heraclitus said about rivers. I bring this up to put the recent Wikipedia scandal in perspective. Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, is always changing.

Entries are being created, added to, subtracted from, corrected, and sometimes deleted with a frequency that would shock the editors of the world's most respected general-interest encyclopedia, the Britannica.

The Web-only encyclopedia, which I often consult and sometimes link to, is a marvel of Internet cooperation. Thousands of contributors freely give their time to the project, writing and editing and researching. Many of these people are experts in their fields. Others, like the bulk of the contributors to great 19th century projects such as the Oxford English Dictionary, are mere talented amateurs. Mere, indeed!

Unfortunately, a few contributors are saboteurs, libellers, and ill-meaning pranksters, creating havoc with false entries, mean-spirited lies, and low-brow japes.

It's easier for bad entries to "happen" to a good encyclopedia like Wikipedia than to other encyclopedias because it's so easy to add things to Wikipedia. Until a few weeks ago, even anonymous contributors could write and edit the wiki. Even now it takes just minutes to sign up as a contributor and start your career as an unpaid encyclopedist.

And though other contributors can edit out what you put up, this is not always as fast as the word "wiki" suggests (wiki means "quick" or "hasten" in Hawaiian).

Take the recent case of sometime journalist John Seigenthaler, Sr. For 132 days a biography of him appeared on Wikipedia that was riddled with lies. It was true that he had been an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s. But, contrary to what appeared on Wikipedia, it was not the case that

  1. he was "for a brief time" thought to be directly involved in the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy;
  2. since this was never a live suspicion, the statement "Nothing was ever proven" was a lie, too, in the sense that nothing was ever tried to be proven or falsified;
  3. Seigenthaler did not move to the Soviet Union in 1971 and
  4. did not start "one of the country's largest public relations firms" shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1984.

His son, John Seigenthaler, Jr., a journalist for NBC News, found this misinformation duplicated on Reference.com and Answers.com.

Now, neither journalist, father nor son, signed up immediately onto Wikipedia to delete the lies. Seigenthaler Sr. publicized the situation, instead, and wrote to the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, to ask if he could find the author of the libelous note. Wales had to shamefacedly reply in the negative. Though Wikipedia users take pride in the "self-correcting" nature of the enterprise, Seigenthaler noted in a USA Today article that "[f]or four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website's history [on] Oct. 5. The falsehoods remained on Answers.com and Reference.com for three more weeks."

The revised, current Wikipedia page devoted to Seigenthaler appears, like many Wikipedia articles, exhaustive and more than fair. It includes a heavily annotated section on the controversy itself, running about 300 words. As of this writing (and I'm sure this entry will change over time — though perhaps with more than a little attention and editorial oversight than your average Wikipedia entry) the article ends with the most recent news, that a Nashville man had confessed to the original prank, and had resigned from his job because of this. Seigenthaler had actually urged the man's boss not to accept the man's resignation. A vindicated Seigenthaler did not start any legal proceedings, and apparently saw no need to twist the knife into the culprit.

The controversy marks a major event in the history of Wikipedia. The wiki's protocols were tightened up to disallow anonymous users from posting articles. Good move. It also shows that the "automatic" self-correction method of this free Web service was never really automatic. That's just a metaphor. It depends on people with good intentions and no small amount of integrity, as well as the time and attention to follow through on watching carefully the entries to which they claim "ownership" (to use a business buzzword).

The controversy also is a watershed moment in the history of the tug-of-war that is the Old Media vs. New Media paradigm shift. Seigenthaler is an Old Media practitioner. He started out as a reporter, has worked as a publisher, and in 1986 established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. Described in the pages of that university's College of Mass Communication as a "leading nationwide spokesman for First Amendment freedoms," Seigenthaler demonstrated, in the current scandal, how Old Media people approach speech controversy. He went public. He sought to find out who was responsible. And then he managed to have some grace when the miscreant was discovered.

He did not simply make the necessary change on Wikipedia and be done with it.

By going public he showed how effective the public platform can be, not merely to change one article in a vast website, but also to change the editorial and security policies of that institution.

This week, as if in a follow-up to the controversy, the British journal Nature compared Wikipedia with the Britannica, and found "few differences in accuracy" — though Nature's reviewers maintained "Wikipedia entries were often poorly structured and confused." That's true about some entries, but not all. Britannica, despite its evenness of style, is not a work of perfection either, not by a long shot.

All in all, a happy conclusion. The "market of ideas" may not be a perfect system, and even at its best it is not really automatic. But it does work. In a context of freedom — and public contests.

Wikipedia, I trust, will be better than ever. Perhaps a bit slower to add information, but also less likely to add misinformation and disinformation. It will be good to step into it again. Anew.