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reed magazine logoJune 2010

Deconstructing Wikipedia continued

Paradoxically, the slapdash quality of some early entries actually enticed new contributors. Visitors who came to scoff discovered that they could make improvements with a few strokes of the keyboard. Wikipedia benefited from a virtuous cycle: the bigger it grew, the more useful it became; the more useful it became, the bigger it grew.

Today, Wikipedia boasts more than 3.2 million articles—far outpacing venerable rivals such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica in both breadth and depth. But Sanger wasn’t worried about breadth or depth. He was worried about authority.

Invasion of the Trolls

At first, Wikipedia’s contributors were drawn primarily from Nupedians, who generally agreed that experts should prevail when writing about their own field. Conflicts (there were many) were settled by consensus. But Sanger soon found himself preoccupied with preventing the project from slipping into anarchy. By October 2001, Wikipedia had 13,000 articles, and new contributors were arriving every minute. Graffiti and vandalism were increasingly common. Dealing with vandalism was fairly straightforward—entries could easily be reverted to their previous versions. But some contributors wanted to use Wikipedia to broadcast their political views or personal opinions. Worse, self-important windbags sometimes reverted the changes of genuine experts because they preferred their own phrasing or focused on pedantic quibbles. “There was a growing problem,” Sanger later wrote. “Persistent and difficult contributors tend to drive away better, more valuable contributors.”

One example of the maddening disputes that periodically erupted was how to refer to the city of Gdansk, or Danzig, which has at various times lived under German, Polish, and independent rule. Each name had its partisans, who periodically embarked on search-and-destroy missions to change references from one to the other. (This conflict, and a related argument about Poznan/Posen, simmered for years.)

Sanger did his best to damp down the fires, but his moral authority—never very strong—became progressively more diluted. Consensus became elusive, then impossible. Meanwhile, Nupedia was stalled and BOMIS was running short of money. Sanger was laid off in February 2002, but continued on as “chief instigator” at Wikipedia. However, the community’s indifference to expertise continued to needle him. Worse, the anonymous nature of the project (contributors are known only by their online aliases) gave cover to bullies and cranks. After a few stillborn attempts to recruit experts to vet articles, he quit the project for good in January 2003.

Sanger’s departure did nothing to slow Wikipedia’s momentum. Despite, or perhaps because of the project’s not-for-profit status, its growth was explosive. Inventive contributors found ways to mine sources of information such as the U.S. Census and works whose copyright had expired. But the problems he warned about did not vanish. Although Wikipedia gradually adopted rules to discourage squabbling and devised software to combat outright vandalism, its core culture remained unchanged. In December 2004, Sanger wrote an essay, “Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism,” calling once again for a board of experts to review Wikipedia articles—a proposal that met with an icy reception.

Quest for Authority

growth chart

Wikipedia has seen explosive growth in the number of articles.

For many years, Sanger’s misgivings about Wikipedia had remained somewhat abstract; it was hard to pinpoint any real harm resulting from a substandard Wikipedia entry, except that some random websurfers might be misinformed about some random topic. But the Seigenthaler episode transformed the debate. Here was an individual whose reputation had been undeniably savaged—but who had no obvious remedy. By a quirk of federal law, Wikipedia is immune to libel suits. Individual authors can be sued, but only if they can be identified—and Wikipedia’s lax registration does not even require them to leave valid email addresses.

(The smear was eventually traced to a Nashville man who worked for a delivery service; he had posted the article as a prank.)

Sanger hoped that the painful episode would have the salutary effect of pushing Wikipedia to address its problems, but he was disappointed. Wikipedia adopted rules to prevent unregistered contributors from creating pages, but they could still edit pages—and registration was no guarantee of identity. In fact, Wikipedia is rife with “sock puppets,” contributors who create alternative identities to express differing views.

Sanger finally decided that there had to be another way. In September 2006, he launched Citizendium, an alternative to Wikipedia with several crucial changes. First, contributors cannot be anonymous. Second, articles are reviewed by experts before they gain the coveted status of “approved.” Visitors can read draft articles, but they are clearly marked as such.

At first, Citizendium “forked” or copied Wikipedia, so as to begin with a rich storehouse of information. (Wikipedia maintains no copyright on its articles.) However, Sanger quickly realized that simply cleaning up Wikipedia articles was not much fun. Many articles, he felt, were not inaccurate per se, but poorly written. “An encyclopedia entry is not just a collection of facts,” he says.

reed magazine logoJune 2010