Two dead senators and an extra Wilhelm

Sun 08 Mar 2009 03:24 PM

Some people have suggested to me that I should try my hand at writing some newspaper op-ed pieces. One natural topic for me, given where my research intersects with the interests of the guy down at the Dairy Queen, is nattering about the Wikipedia. So last month, in response to then current events, I wrote a piece that essentially recapitulates the thesis of my Episteme paper.

I submitted it a couple of places, but no luck. Rather than leave it in a directory on my hard drive where no one will ever read it, I've opted to put it here on the blog where no one will read it...

The Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. This makes it a simmering information soup, with a mix of hearty stock and confused froth. Sometimes it boils over, as it did in January when someone edited the entries on Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd to say that both men were dead.

To be fair, eruptions like these do not show that the Wikipedia is bankrupt as a source of information. In both cases, the premature claims of death were removed within a few minutes by Wikipedia users. False claims inserted into Wikipedia entries are often removed quickly.

In recent research, reported in the journal First Monday, I tried to suss out just how quickly and reliably the Wikipedia community fixes errors. I added short, false claims to Wikipedia entries and watched them to see if they were fixed. Because I was interested in short-term reaction time, I corrected the entries myself after 48 hours if no one else had done so. I made changes to the entries on deceased philosophers, so there was no danger that any living person was defamed.

Over one third of the fibs I inserted were corrected or marked for correction. When someone corrected one of my fibs, there was a one in five chance that they would find the other fibs I inserted at the same time and correct those too.

This is a moderating result. Wikipedia correction is not perfect or immediate, but neither is the Wikipedia a place where you can say anything and have it stand.

Back to the case of Kennedy and Byrd: Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales used it as an excuse to propose changing the way that Wikipedia works. Presently, anyone with a net connection can access and edit pretty much any article on the site. With the proposed change, anonymous users would not be able to edit the biographies of living people and have their changes appear immediately. Instead, under the Flagged Revisions proposal, a trusted Wikipedia user would have to sign off on the change before it would appear.

In February, Wikipedia error is in the news again. The full name and noble title of Germany's new economy minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, is fifteen words long. A prankster added an extra 'Wilhelm' to the middle of Guttenberg's name in the Wikipedia article about him. When several German media outlets made jokes about the minister's name, they printed it including the spurious 'Wilhelm.' They later printed retractions.

Flagged Revisions are already required in the German Wikipedia. So Wales' proposal would not stop falsehoods like the extra 'Wilhelm' in Guttenberg's staggeringly long moniker.

Note, however, that none of these notables were harmed by the errors in Wikipedia. Kennedy and Byrd were said to be dead for only a few minutes. Even if some credulous Wikipedia user loaded the pages during that brief window of time and falsely believed that the men had died, no one would rely on a brief consultation of such a precarious source for any purpose where the life or death of the men had actually mattered. And the German papers would have made fun of a name that was over a dozen words long, with or without the extra Wilhelm.

The great thing about Wikipedia is not just that anyone can contribute, as if it were a collaborative sandbox or experimental theater. That openness is valuable because it means that Wikipedia has entries about an enormous range of topics, many of them too recent to be covered at all in traditional print encyclopedias.

This also means that, regardless of how diligent Wikipedia users are, errors will get into it. Some will be corrected in minutes, others in hours, and others will persist for days or even months. When we use Wikipedia, we should be mindful that any entry we look at might contain errors living out their time between insertion and correction. We cannot just rely on the skills we have developed for gleaning information from traditional media. Learning to use Wikipedia will mean comprehending its novelty.