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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