The recent (actually not so recent, but ongoing for sure) debate on Wikipedia post the Seigenthaler fiasco has thrown light on larger issues, and in that sense, the fiasco was a blessing in disguise, but for Mr. Seigenthaler — who has all the reasons to be upset.
I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.
A perceptive reader has raised an important disctinction that has to be kept in our mind while thinking about these issues:
The issue isn’t accuracy per se. It’s accountabilty. WP may be on the whole more accurate than a paper encyclopedia. But it’s easier to hold an institution or person accountable for an inaccuracy.Perhaps this idea of accountability is a misguided notion, but I think it undergirds much of our ethical framework. To the extent the WP framework allows for anonymous posts, its structure undermines this check. You can’t sue anonymous. And I would expect that if the WP folks have done a decent job drafting their submission policy, they pretty much diclaim liability for anything submitted. So while the community polices accuracy, nobody is ultimately accountable.
And then there is Wales’ own defense that’s quite interesting (from the same article, I’ve lost the original reference)
Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?
When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?
No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not allowing something just because they haven’t taken measures to forcibly prevent it a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.
I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.
The most recent addition to the debate is: The real issue: Wikipedia can be better:
Comparing Wikipedia to Encycolpedia Britannica and concluding that they are comparable and, therefore, that Wikipedia is better because it allows more democratic access to authors is like concluding that a mule is superior to a hinny because the former is more common than the latter. For the record, a mule’s parents are a female horse and a male donkey, while a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey and less common than mules.
And more importantly:
I think that Wikipedia’s raison d’etre is founded on excellent grounds, that anyone should be able to contribute to a single record of the knowledge shared by humanity. It’s incredibly productive to create a proving ground for knowledge.
The part 2 Making Wikipedia better takes it further, with some very pertinent points:
The greatest problem with the Wikipedia, in my opinion is that it inherited from the encycolpedia the notion of a single entry about a given topic. Wikipedia must encompass differences of opinion much better than it does. Rather than have a single entry about controversial topics, such as George W. Bush or sociobiology, the most productive approach would be to allow the reader to see contending views-—more than two of them, as life isn’t binary—presented as a series of articles under the same heading.
Going by the signs, the debate is just heating up, and I have a feeling this won’t be a worthless debate…