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Deconstructing Wikipedia continued

“It’s the ability to construct a narrative of the subject, the ability to describe things in a way that does not supply a misleading implication. You have to have lived with a topic for a while to do that. This is the sort of thing that separates the real expert from the ersatz expert.”

Instead, Sanger and his partners decided to start from scratch. For an example of their approach, compare the beginnings of the articles on Life:

Wikipedia: Life (cf. biota) is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have self-sustaining biological processes from those that do not—either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate.
Citizendium: The definition of life, the determination of the fundamental nature of living things, and the explanation of life’s origin and evolution, have engendered much thought, debate and research throughout history.

Citizendium’s challenge, of course, lies in achieving critical mass. Currently the project has 13,000 articles—a respectable number. Of these, however, just 1,000 are reasonably complete, and a scant 121 are actually approved. As with Nupedia, progress has been excruciatingly slow. Sanger still makes contributions, but devotes most of his time to other projects, such as WatchKnow, a catalog of free educational videos.

Holes in the System

In recent years, the free-wheeling anarchy of Wikipedia’s early days has slowly been codified, sometimes in surprising ways. In May 2009, for example, it banned all users from the Church of Scientology from editing any articles.

Since August 2009, biographies of living persons (known as BLPs) are subject to extra scrutiny; changes to these articles must be reviewed by experienced editors before they are made public, and material from dubious sources is forbidden. Wikipedia’s official policy runs to 4,000 words and is a paragon of responsible journalism.

“We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks,” Wikimedia chairman Michael Snow told the New York Times. “There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion— whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now.”

Wikipedia has also developed sophisticated software to repair vandalism. A 2007 study from the University of Minnesota estimated that 42 percent of all vandalism was fixed within minutes, and that only a tiny fraction (0.75%) survived long enough to be seen more than 1,000 times.

Wikipedians often cite these sorts of statistics to buttress their argument that the site is reliable, and the change in policy has improved the quality of many BLPs. But Wikipedia remains exquisitely vulnerable to those who have an agenda to pursue—or a machete to sharpen.

On March 1, Wikipedia’s “Feature Article”—the most prominent location on the site—profiled a retired Oxford biologist named Mike Handel. After duly noting details of his academic career and research interests, the article reported that his laboratory had once been the target of an attempted arson by animal rights activists. Then it dropped a bombshell in the eighth paragraph, when it implied—without citing any sources—that Dr. Handel had engaged in an affair with a lab assistant and killed her to keep her quiet.

This article remained on Wikipedia for several hours and was read by thousands of people. Unfortunately, there is no such person as Dr. Handel. The article was fabricated by a former contributor known as “John Limey” to demonstrate the holes in Wikipedia’s procedures. Using sock puppets, Limey wrote the entry, added salacious details, and even created phony newspaper articles to gull Wikipedia editors. Some editors raised questions about the unsourced allegations; others were more concerned with grammatical issues.

“The entire saga is, undoubtedly, a great failure for Wikipedia,” Limey wrote later. Although the vast majority of Wikipedia’s editors and contributors are conscientious, he concluded, the system has profound limitations. “Wikipedia doesn’t need better editors. It needs better rules.”

The Handel affair generated considerable brouhaha among Wikipedians, but virtually no one else seemed to notice—or care.

The truth is that, whatever its flaws, Wikipedia has become so useful it seems unlikely to be dislodged from its perch any time soon. It is currently the sixth most popular site on the web, while its erstwhile rivals struggle for relevance. The Encyclopaedia Britannica ranks at 27,284; Encarta was shut down last year.

Until something better comes along, Sanger’s “very silly idea” is destined to be the first stop on the information highway for millions of people who need a quick primer on every subject from laetrile to Lady Gaga. What is perhaps disturbing is that it may also be the last stop.

Larry Sanger will speak at commencement on Monday, May 17.

Further Reading

  • Larry Sanger. Various essays available at
  • John Seigenthaler. “A False Wikipedia ‘Biography.’” USA Today. Web. November 29, 2005.
  • Eric Goldman. “Wikipedia’s Labor Squeeze and its Consequences.” Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 8. Web. August 19, 2009.
  • Reid Priedhorsky, et al. “Creating, destroying, and restoring value in Wikipedia.” University of Minnesota. Web. 2007.
  • “Dr. Handel or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Wikipedia.” On Wikipedia. Web. March 2, 2010.
  • Andrew Lih. The Wikipedia Revolution. How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion. Print. 2009.
  • Andrew Dalby. The World and Wikipedia: How We are Editing Reality. Siduri Books. 2009. Print.
  • Dan O’Sullivan. Wikipedia: A New Community of Practice? Ashgate. Print. 2009.
  • Philipp Blom. Enlightening the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Print. 2005.
  • Eric S. Raymond. The Cathedral & the Bazaar. O’Reilly Media. Print. 1999.
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