Inert Detritus The Internet's dust bunnies

8 August 2006 @ 11am

The Wisdom of Crowds: Wikipedia, Vandalism, and Free Information

Wikipedia has a single, overarching goal: to create a free encyclopedia.

Wikipedia depends on volunteer contributions of knowledge for its content. To make this easy for anyone to do, Wikipedia is very accepting of new material: complete strangers, such as myself, can log onto Wikipedia at any time, from any internet connection in the world, and write about something we think is worthy of encyclopedic inclusion. 

As great as Wikipedia’s free and open nature are for contributing and editing, it is also its Achilles’ heel. Material can be removed as easily as it can be added, and this the tool that Wikipedia vandals use for their handiwork.

Wikipedia is continually vandalized. News coverage of Wikipedia often centers not on the collaborative work of millions of editors, but on the subversive goals of a malicious few, each bent on achieving their 15 seconds of fame. Vandalism is incredibly easy to accomplish: edit an article, pick something you want to change, and hit submit.

Editors of Wikipedia perform a wide variety of tasks. Most research the topics discussed, providing references to academic papers, news items, or other third party sources. Some grammar nazis are at home in the semi-literate Wikipedian world, where everything is in need of a good copy-edit.

I prefer to patrol the new users and pages feeds. I watch over newly created pages, keeping people from creating articles about a house party they held, or their ex-girlfriend whom they hate. I also watch edits made by new users. New accounts are often the tool of choice for vandals: why bother to make hundreds of constructive edits, then throw away your account on vandalism? You gain no “benefit of the doubt” in administrators’ minds by constructively contributing, and so, vandals simply create throwaway accounts to etch their graffiti far and wide.

Coverage of Wikipedia also occasionally questions some of the more sweeping edits made in Wikipedia. Editors have made plenty of bad edits in the past, and more than a few administrators have made decisions which fell on the wrong side of an issue or dispute. However, most, if not all such mistakes, are recognized and discussed, and a consensus is often reached that falls on the right side of the debate.

In the end, Wikipedia’s greatest strength and weakness are one and the same. The best tools the community has to handling vandals and correcting mistakes have all ready been developed. While Wikipedia is not and will never be universally accepted in academia and business as an authorative source, it remains a valuable collection of information and knowledge not available elsewhere.

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