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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Devil and the Holistic Encyclopedia

There was a brief controversy over the past couple of days about an article on the Internet-based Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia over an article that accused a prominent Democrat and journalist of being involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Apparently the article was part of some sort of office practical joke. The folks at Wikipedia didn't catch it and left it up for several months to the horror of the journalist in question. The author of the prank fessed up and lost his job over it. Wikipedia as a result of the incident has come under fire for allowing uncredited postings to be made to the encyclopedia's article database. The Wiki folks have, over the years, built up a carefully crafted community of information junkies who tirelessly scour the world for bits of information about anything and everything. Till now, the Wiki volunteers have policed themselves and there is, of course, some resistance to changing what has been an arguably successful method of collecting up to the minute data. Some of their articles are updated within minutes of a major event, the death of a public figure or the publication of some new bit of history, archeology or pop culture arcania. All in all it's been a successful experiment so far despite the misinformation that's bedeviled the site more often than the Wiki's would like to talk about. The concept has proved itself by creating a massive co-op information library that deserves full marks for innovation.

THAT SAID -- I think Wikipedia has reached the critical mass necessary to make the database useful. It’s time to shove in the control rods now. Articles should have authors listed. Everyone who contributed should be included and their credentials (if they have any). In using Wikipedia, it would be infinitely useful to me to be able to see whether the article was written by an imminent nuclear scientist or a 35 year old devotee of the Warhammer Universe who is currently living in his mother’s garage and drawing disability due to his tragic addiction to Ding-dongs and moon pies. Authors should have to pony up a little information about themselves – establish their bona-fides so to speak. If Wikipedia wants to continue to be viewed as a legitimate source of knowledge, they should be willing to put some practices in place that give researchers some idea of where an article comes from. Certainly, for many controversial articles there would be a long list of authors and contributors, but multiple authors have never limited the usefulness of, say, medical journal articles or scientific papers on physics. It should be simple enough to prohibit anonymous authors from having the right to post an article or revision unless a verified author is willing to put his or her name on the article to cover the same information that the anonymous shy person has put forward. If the information is good, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone to take credit for it if the original author doesn’t want to.

Anonymity is great if you’re debating in a chat room or on a list serve or bulletin board, where the argument is the thing but when you’re writing an encyclopedia which is supposed to be factual in nature, information shouldn’t be included if it is uncredited, unsupported or just plain made up. While Wikipedia may be a holistic and evolutionary process (which is admittedly a pretty cool way to do this sort of thing), part of any natural selection process has to be selecting positive traits and rejecting unhelpful ones, that is if the evolution is going to lead to a successful outcome and not some Darwinian electronic dead end inhabited by unwashed post-adolescent pranksters and left-wing conspiracy theorists.

Just one man's opinion....

Tom King

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