I really don't go out my way to find bad Wikipedia articles, but sometimes that's all that Google offers me.
By the time you read my comments, Wikipedia's article will probably have changed. If you'd like to see how annoying the article was when I visited, click Wikipedia's History tab, and find the version that that was in place when I made my criticism.
My job is done here; there's nothing further to say.
Happily, it appears that Wikipedia has officially jumped the shark. Several recent events bear this out.
- Wikipedia has become so mainstream that it can now be ridiculed by Stephen Colbert with only the slightest background explanation of what it is.
- Ditto the Onion.
- The New Yorker had a long, generally favorable analysis of Wikipedia. This is important, not so much for what the article said, as for its mere existence. A traditional rule of thumb in trendspotting is that once a trend reaches the major weeklies, it's on its way out.
- Ditto Atlantic.
- As more and more Wikipedia articles are brought under "semi"-protection, Wikipedia is abandoning its early utopianism. It's becoming less the encyclopedia that everyone edits, and more the encyclopedia that a narrow team of volunteers protects from wiseguys.
Wikipedia has become the McDonalds/Microsoft/Walmart of information. It provides reliably mediocre information at a low, low cost. This drives competitors out of business, reduces diversity, and lowers the standards all across the board. Just as McDonald's is where you go when you're hungry but don't really care about the quality of your food, Wikipedia is where you go when you're curious but don't really care about the quality of your knowledge.
It was fun picking on Wikipedia when I was the only one doing it, but now Wikipedia is becoming the butt of jokes all across the mainstream media. Complaining about Wikipedia will soon become as common as complaining about AOL.
Now it's time to abandon Wikipedia and move on to the next step, whatever that is. We should use the lessons we've learned from Wikipedia's mistakes to develop Wikipedia's ultimate replacement.
I don't get too involved with inside controversies at Wikipedia. I figure Wikipedia is like Hollywood. Looking at how movies are really made -- the backroom deals, who's sleeping with whom, who's difficult or downright dangerous to work with, etc. -- is entertaining, and it can certainly explain why bad movies abound, but what really matters is the end product. It all comes down to whether or not it's a good movie.
For me, the important aspect of Wikipedia is whether it's a good article. (It often isn't.)
That said, if you start investigating who is writing Wikipedia, you can get seriously worried. Who are these mysterious people who have taken it on themselves to shape our understanding of the world around us?
A correspondent pointed me to a strange user who had over 25,000 edits. The user himself/themselves claimed to part of large, nefarious plot with a hidden agenda. The user, "RJII", has now been blocked, of course, and all information about him/them deleted. However, I took the liberty of copying the page before they deleted it. (My copy works in MS Internet Explorer, but not Firefox.)
Weird, huh? Maybe RJII is just crazy; maybe they're evil; maybe they're our saviors; maybe they're just being playful, or maybe they have delusions of grandeur, but the important thing to remember is that, in Wikipedia, RJII has more influence than you or I do.
Also, just by the way, why is it that when you search Google for certain specific web sites that are critical of Wikipedia, you get no direct link? Google refuses to point me to either Wikipedia Watch
or the Uncyclopedia
. I realize that Google makes a lot of money selling ads to Wikipedia's scraper sites, but still, it seems rather petty for them to censor criticism of Wikipedia.
The Internet is mostly guys. Guys like guns. Therefore the Internet has a military bias.
Before you complain to me about my pacifist liberal whining, please note. I'm a guy; I'm on Internet, and my website is mostly military history. All I'm saying that there's a serious pro-military bias on Internet that carries over to Wikipedia without anyone even noticing. For example, look at Wikipedia's article on Hurricane Katrina. Ignore the text, and notice the pictures. Of the five pictures showing actual humans, four are pictures of military personnel, and one is a picture of Geraldo Rivera. There are no pictures of victims (aside from the little black child rescued by Mr. Rivera), none of polical leaders, and none of civilian aid workers. Overall, Wikipedia's illustrations show an efficient government response to a bloodless natural disaster, not the total foul-up that we all remember.
The captions also strengthen the impression of an efficient response. "A U.S. Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter crewman assists in search and rescue efforts," says one, but look at the picture again. He's not assisting; he's just staring out the window.
You might say that pictures merely decorate the article, while the actual information is in the text. On the other hand, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Adding to the Republican Party version of events is the fact that Fox News is the only news agency mentioned in the section on "Media Involvement
": "Several reporters for various news agencies located groups of stranded victims, and reported their location via satellite uplink... This was best illustrated when Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera of Fox News, among others, reported thousands of refugees stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center. Rivera tearfully pleaded for authorities to either send help or let the refugees leave."
Since Mr. Rivera is always a tad histrionic, his antics were no big deal. I was more surprised by Anderson Cooper.
Why not this picture? "The President, the Head of FEMA and the Secretary of Homeland Security try to look useful."
Or if you're a stickler for NPOV, how about "The President, the Head of FEMA and the Secretary of Homeland Security were severely criticized for their response to the crisis."
If you need a list of movies ordered by the use of the word fuck, then this list is perfect. If you don't need such a list, you're going to wonder whether these people should consider getting another hobby.
Take a few moments to explore the list and marvel at the ingenuity that went into it. For example, the article recognizes that there are different opinions in the matter, so not only do the writers count the fucks themselves, they compare it with the professional Family Movie Guide. They calculate "fucks" per minute. The results are charted. A subheading keeps a running record year by year. If you look behind the discussion tab, you'll see debate over whether variants of the word should count, or whether the lyrics of background music should count. They ponder the question of whether pointing a reader to the movie script with the instruction to use [control][f] to count the fucks is a legitimate source. Wikipedia puts more effort into debating the validity of this list than it puts into footnoting the average history article.
Now I'm going to make a bold declaration: Any system of knowledge that is capable of listing films in order of use of the word fuck is incapable of writing a good summary and analysis of the Philippine-American War. And vice-versa. This is an inviolable rule.
How can I be so sure? One word: felidae.
There are 37 species of felidae, or cats, all built on the same basic model but each slightly different. Why so many? Because each species tweaks the basic design in order to improve performance in certain areas. Cheetahs are built to run faster than any available prey. Lions are built to stalk and ambush big game. Bobcats are built to go after smaller game. The price that each species pays for high performance in one area requires a sacrifice in some other area. A leopard can't chase down a zebra. Lions need large territories in which to hunt.
Trade-offs are as true in society as they are in nature. A legal system designed to catch and punish every last criminal in the country will also punish many innocent citizens. If policemen are not required to maintain a careful chain of evidence, then it becomes easy to plant false evidence. If the police are allowed to use any means necessary to force a criminal to confess, then a lot of innocent people will confess simply to avoid torture. Policemen who are never punished for shooting wildly at suspects will kill a lot of bystanders as well. High performance in crime fighting means sacrificing the protection of the innocent. And vice-versa.
The problem with Wikipedia is that it was designed to maximize the world's ability to contribute to this movie-fuck list. As new movies come out, random readers can count up the fucks and add the new tally. Other readers can double-check or proofread or add links. It doesn't require any particular expertise.
It's hard to imagine any changes to Wikipedia's procedures that would help to make this article more complete or easier to update. In fact, any changes to Wikipedia's procedures would probably hurt the movie-fuck list. If Wikipedia decides to require registration, then a lot of potential fuck-counters will figure it's not worth the bother. If WP were to require a valid e-mail address, some fuck-counters might worry about this article being tracked back to them by, say, their parents, or their best friend ("This is what you were doing instead of helping me move? You said you had a test to study for.") If Wikipedia were to require all changes to be validated by a fact-checker, you'd have to find an admin willing to count fucks behind the original fuck-counter.
You see what I mean? Wikipedia has made its choice. It would rather have the definitive list of films ordered by uses of the word "fuck". It's willing to have sub-standard history articles in exchange.
And this, by itself, is not a problem. I actually enjoy Wikipedia's trivia. I just wish they'd stick to what they do best.
- Jason Scott, "The Great Failure of Wikipedia": Transcription of a presentation/speech given at Notacon 3, April 8, 2006. One of the five or so best articles about Wikipedia.
- When I started this blog a year and few months ago, the press was uniformly agreed about how wonderful Wikipedia is. Now, in just one day on Google News, I found quite the opposite:
- Toronto Port Authority: "Wikipedia wars", May 3, 2006
- Cuba: "War of words: website can't define Cuba", Miami Herald, May 03, 2006
- Richmond, Va.: "Belle Isle for Potheads?", May 3, 2006
- Aiken Co., Ga.: Web site offers unbalanced view of Aiken, some argue, May 2, 2006
I've lost track of all the recent hoaxes on Wikipedia -- there are just too many -- but Wikitruth has them all here. It's quite an impressive collection.
Here are the hoaxes I've discussed:
29 Apr. 2006: Philippine-American War
It begins by quickly stating the obvious -- The Philippine-American War was a conflict between the armed forces of the United States and insurgent groups in the Philippines -- and then gets down to the really important business of bickering about the name.
Was it a war? Was it an insurgency? Even before Wikipedia gets around to telling us how or why it started, they consider it vital to explain what the Library of Congress calls it -- and this is still too much for one writer, who finds it necessary to argue with the Library by pointing out "No country recognized the conflict as a war because no country recognized the insurgents as a legitimate government."
Let me try to explain this calmly. You can call it whatever you want because WARS DO NOT HAVE OFFICIAL NAMES. What do we call that business between 1939 and 1945? Is it "World War II", "The Second World War" or "World War Two"? Who cares? There is no international body of historians and linguists who gather at annual conferences to vote on what to call our wars. It doesn't matter whether a "country recognized the insurgents as a legitimate government" BECAUSE YOU CAN CALL IT ANY DAMN THING YOU WANT! No one recognized the Confederacy, but we still call it the Civil WAR or the WAR Between the States or whatever. We're currently fighting "Wars" in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Against Terror, but the United States is fighting recognized governments in none of those.
The argument over what to call it reoccurs farther down the page:
"The administration of U.S. President McKinley subsequently declared Aguinaldo to be an "outlaw bandit", and no formal declaration of war was ever issued. Two reasons have been given for this: "
Let's pause a moment to savor the passive voice: "Two reasons have been given for this." By phrasing it that way, Wikipedia can duck the awkward question of who exactly has given those reasons. President McKinley? A well respected historian? A less respected historian? A coworker trying to remember something he heard on the History Channel last week?
"Two reasons have been given for this:
- One is that calling the war the Philippine Insurrection made it appear to be a rebellion against a lawful government.
- The other was to enable the American government to avoid liability to claims by veterans of the action."
Three questions spring to mind:
- How often does the US "declare war" anyway? About the time that the US was fighting in the Philippines, American troops went into Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua and China, yet no declarations of war were issued for those either, even though the US recognized those countries as legit. Hell, even as we speak, Bush proudly calls himself "The War President" without granting legitimacy to his enemies. (So much for reason #1)
- Innuendo aside, were any veterans actually denied benefits? Nowadays, veterans earn their benefits by serving in the military, not by fighting in declared wars. Presumably, it was the same in 1899. (So much for reason #2)
- Isn't it possible that the US didn't declare war simply because that's a lot of trouble, it takes too long, and Congress might say no? That's pretty much why we haven't declared war in the past 60 years.
In passing, there's this: "For the the Filipinos..."
To continue: "Hostilities started on February 4, 1899 when an American soldier shot a Filipino soldier who was crossing a bridge into American-occupied territory in San Juan del Monte, an incident historians now consider to be the start of the war." (I'm glad Wikipedia explains that historians now consider the start of the war to be when hostilities started.)
Do I have to explain why "The high casualty figures are due mostly to the combination of superior arms and even more superior numbers of the Americans. They had the most modern and up-to-date weapons in the world with the most superb bolt action rifles and machine guns and were also well led." is poorly written, or can most of you see it right away?
"Many of the civilian casualties resulted from disease and famine." That's simply not possible because of the definition of casualty. This also applies to the introductory table which declares "Casualties... est. 250,000 to 1,000,000 civilians died of war, famine, or disease"
"With the June assassination of General Antonio Luna..." By whom? "...conventional military leadership was weakened." Even though the assassination wrecked the Filipino leadership, Wikipedia doesn't consider it necessary to explain who did it, how or why.
The most confusing aspect of the article is that it jumps up and down the timescale. The antiwar movement is not discussed until after the war is over. War crimes are not discussed until after the Philippines become an independent country.
The problem with breaking up the sequence is that you sense no chain of cause and effect. For example, Wikipedia states "As of 1900, Aguinaldo ordered his army to engage in guerrilla warfare.... The shift to guerrilla warfare, however, only angered the Americans into acting more ruthlessly than before," but all the atrocities described later in the article date from 1899, so it sounds like the American were already rather angered. In fact, since no date later than 1899 appears anywhere in the section on war crimes, it appears that the American actually mellowed out after the shift to guerrilla war.
One big problem with Wikipedia is that once an article is organized badly, the only way to fix it is to rewrite it entirely from scratch. A wrong date can be edited away easily, but describing war crimes as if they're somehow not part of the actual war can only be fixed by breaking the article down and rearranging every paragraph.
To be thorough, let me point out that this article contains 6199 words:
- 2,034 words (33%) outline the course of the war.
- 1,398 words (23%) describe war crimes and atrocities. 1,215 words describe atrocities committed by Americans, and 180 words describe atrocities committed by Filipinos.
- 1,436 words (23%) are given to footnotes, links and sources. I'm impressed. Really. This is far more than you'd find with most Wikipedia articles; however, I have to wonder why they've chosen to annotate only one entry in the bibliography ("Kenton J. Clymer States "The War Miller describes is a more believable one than the one Gates pictures."") and not any of the others. If you don't trust Gates, why did you suggest him under "Further reading"? And how authoritative is Poetics/Politics: Radical Aesthetics for the Classroom? More to the point, why is it that none of the titles I get when I search Philippine-American War in the Philadelphia Public Library catalog (just to pick a random library) are among Wikipedia's sources? You'd think Wikipedia would use some of the standard sources when writing their article.
- Using Wikipedia's article on the Philippine-American War as your source, explain why the Americans were fighting a war in the Philippines in the first place. (Hint: you can't.)
- Why is "8.2 English education and the Catholic Church" a subheading of "8 Casualties"?
- CNN April 26, 2006: Campaign manager resigns amid Wikipedia flap. Biography altered to include candidate's son's DUI arrest.
- TV Guide
- TVGuide.com: It's been rumored that you might take over Conan O'Brien's spot on the NBC late-night schedule when he moves to the Tonight Show. How much validity is there to the rumor?
- Smigel: That's the funniest, most ridiculous rumor. I have no idea how that got out there.
- TVGuide.com: So you wouldn't be interested in that job?
- Smigel: No. I found out about that on Wikipedia. Somebody said to me, "Hey, have you looked at your Wikipedia bio? It says you're rumored to be taking over for Conan." I'm like, "OK, I'm going to be about 50 when Conan moves over."
- Apr. 26, 2006 AP: "Taylor camp says Cox campaign manager altered online biography"
- This article quotes Wikipedia that "The DLC was started by Democrats concerned that the party's traditional liberalism relegated it to 'permanent minority status,' according to Wikipedia.com." My question is, where did Wikipedia get this idea? It seems both prescient and pessimistic for the DLC to be established in 1985 to rectify a condition that wouldn't exist until 1992. In 1985, the Democrats were the permanent majority party in both Congress and the states.
- the tweney review, "Wikipedia's reliability?" (March 24th, 2006)
- The Ithacan, "Academics question Wikipedia's credibility" (April 20, 2006) The best part is towards the end:
- "Think about that person who lives down the corridor from you in your dorm who thinks he or she is an expert on international politics or chess or television trivia or whatever and can be sometimes so annoying," he said.
- The most prolific contributor to the site is Ottawa native Simon Pulsifer, an unemployed, 24-year-old graduate of the University of Toronto who lives at home with his parents and has written around 2,000 articles and edited around 86,000, according to the Gannett News Service.
Links: Orlowski, Andrew, "A thirst for knowledge: Wikipedia and other online databases provide a soupy morass of information, but where can we find the variety of views that leads to wisdom" Guardian, April 13, 2006; Notice how Wikitruth's list of press reports and websites critical of Wikipedia doesn't even mention me. Why do I even bother?
There are a few memes about Wikipedia that I would like to dispute on principle.
1: "Professors write Wikipedia articles": Do they? What are their names? Are there any college professors who make significant contributions under their real names about their fields of expertise? I don't mean the occasional correction of an error that they accidentally stumble across. I'm curious about whether any professors take serious responsibility for articles, by inserting extensive content that they have written themselves and by continuously revisiting the article to supervise any changes that other writers might insert.
Registered Wikipedians can flag their favorite articles and be instantly informed of any changes. Fanatic Wikipedians frequently scan the recent changes for obvious vandalism. With maybe 100 changes every minute, they can't do anything more than look for suspicious red flags, but the upshot is, you probably won't sneak a change into an article without somebody seeing it. The trick is to make it look legit.
If you change a detail, like switching a person's alma mater from Ohio State to Iowa State, a lurking Wikipedian might interpret this as a dispute and look it up. If you add a previously missing detail, the lurking Wikipedian will likely assume that you know what you're talking about, unless someone else disputes it. The more boring, obscure and plausible the detail, the more likely it will remain. Having a person spend his teenage years at John Kennedy High School is more believable than having him attend Hogwarts. Instead of making Saddam Hussein a finalist on American Idol, find a stub for a small city in Asia, and make up plausibly vague, but demonstrably false, economic activities ("bauxite"), historic events ("the earthquake of 1923") or tourist sites ("the Blue Mosque"). Don't be greedy. Fiddling with more than one article a day might call attention to your activity. And dial-up is best because you get a different IP address every time you log on.
3. "Making all users register would solve Wikipedia's quality control problems": Not necessarily. That may be based on several false assumptions:
- Anonymous users make more mistakes than registered users. [But do they? I see plenty of mistakes by regular Wikipedians.]
- People won't make mistakes if they have a reputation to defend. [But what if they sincerely don't know what they're talking about? Or what if they have an agenda to push?]
- Registering is just as easy as not registering. [Except that it's one more damn password to remember, one more cookie tracking me online, one more mailing list I'll probably end up on, one more chance that my boss, pastor or president will see me expressing unpopular opinions. Is it worth all that just to correct Wikipedia's mistaken claim that Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragorn?]
- There's no good reason not to register. [How about, I don't want to sign my name to an article I have no control over? What if the article changes tomorrow, and suddenly my name is attached to an article that is the exact opposite of what I wrote?]
What Wikipedia needs more than mandatory registration is enforceable and enforced rules.
It's interesting that Wikipedia categorizes the Nature article
as a "formal" peer review, while stigmatizing more critical articles, such as the Guardian's, as "informal". In fact, the Nature article wasn't a formal peer review at all. According to the author, "The article appeared in the news section and is a piece of journalism, so it did not go through the normal peer review process that we use when considering academic papers."
Wikipedia has never been subjected to a scientific peer review. A Wikipedian who pointed this out back in December was shot down with the explanation that in Wikipedia, "peer review" doesn't mean what it means to the rest of the world. It's also interesting that one of the criteria for inclusion in their list of External Peer Reviews is whether the article was "positive". After all, I don't see any Wikipedians jumping all over Mr. Brokensegue with indignant honesty when he nominated an article based on this standard. It would have been nice for someone to respond, "It doesn't matter whether it's positive or not. We include everything."
I realize that Wikipedia is allowed to spin its press coverage in its own favor. I'm not complaining about that per se, but the dishonesty is obvious.
In the second paragraph of the article on decapitation, Wikipedia makes the astounding claim that decapitation might not be fatal among humans:
There´s a heated argument about whether [sic] those who say that separation of the head from the rest of the human body results in death and those who contend their thesis, although statistical studies of survival rate lean against the latter group: there is heavy bleeding from both the head and decapitated body, causing a massive drop in blood pressure and rapid loss of consciousness followed quickly by brain death. Even if the bleeding were stopped, the lack of circulation to supply oxygen to the brain would rapidly lead to brain death. No known medical emergency treatment can save a decapitated patient.
You'd think that with such a heated argument -- a raging debate of such intensity that justifies making this the second paragraph of the article -- they'd be able to point to an actual discussion of it somewhere. Maybe a medical journal? Death Penalty Weekly? The Fortean Times? How about the name of just one expert who believes this? Something?
Maybe at some point in the future, a severed head could be kept alive. Maybe in the future every cause of death will be curable. Unfortunately, the possibility that a 31st Century hospital might be able to reconstitute someone caught in the center of a supernova doesn't mean it won't kill you now. Do I really need to explain this? Are Wikipedians that clueless?
Also, at the bottom of the page, they describe three "other meanings of the word" that are all the same thing. It's like the three winning entries in a redundancy contest.
Plus a bonus! The article even includes a DrunkBuddy Disclaimer
: Among Jews, orthodox interpretations of the Talmud's Sanhdedrin 57a calls for the decapitation of non-Jews who fail to follow the Noahide Laws. , a set of seven laws that act as "general categories of commandments, each containing many components and details" . It should be noted, however, that Rabbinic Judaism has never issued this punishment(per Novak, 1983:28ff.
Older, related articles:
From the article on World War I casualties
: "The total of World War I casualties (military and civilian) was at least 15 million, of which about 9 million were military and about 7 million civilian."
Well, what can you say about an article on numbers that declares 9+7=15 in its very first sentence? [*FN] I suppose we could point out that the casualties from World War One were far, far higher than that. The word "Casualties" includes the wounded and prisoners. The word Wikipedia wants is "deaths". Here's an example of how Wikipedia fails at a subject that requires cumulative rather than discrete knowledge: In the third paragraph, you'll see, "Please also note that most of the civilian deaths were due to the outbreak of the Spanish flu or related to famine."
Apparently, someone ignorant of World War One once read a CDC brochure about Bird Flu and came away thinking that the flu killed all those people. This is not true.
- A quarter of the civilians who died in WW1 were Armenians, a straight genocide.
- A third of the civilian deaths were in Russia, where boring old typhus was the big killer, with a bit of cholera thrown in.
- The flu didn't even start until March 1918, after four years of war, and didn't really get cranked up until September, two months before the armistice.
- Yes, histories of the war will count the soldiers and refugees that died of the flu in camps, but obviously not the millions in, say, China or India, who died far from any battlefield, long after the armistice.
How do I know this? For the same reason that Wikipedia's wording ("...without source or detail.") sounds vaguely familiar -- because they looted my web site for their information. All this without even so much as a thank you. Sure, in the small print way at the bottom of the page they link to something called the Twentieth Century Atlas (not its real name), like, "Oh here's a cute little site you might like", rather than "This guy did all the work and we just took it from him." I've noticed that happens quite often on Wikipedia. First, they take my research and properly cite to it. Then someone else comes along and decides that I'm not a valid source, so they delete the citation, but they still take my research
But I digress.
Because Wikipedia claims to be self-correcting, and also blames all their quality control issues on anonymous vandals, let me point out that registered user Illuvatar added the flu note on 28 October 2004 (16 months ago), and the note survived over 200 edits by equally oblivious registered users.
[*FN] I'm sorry, but saying "at least" doesn't fix the mistake. Think about what "at least" really means. It would be just as valid to say "at least 2 million people died in World War One" -- it's true without being accurate. "At least" is a classic weasel meaning "I have no idea, but I'm going to pretend I do". "At least" is only half an estimate that leaves the top open to allow for the possibility that, who knows, maybe 85 zillion people died. Either have the guts to commit to a real estimate ("around 15 million") or have the decency close off the range ("between 15 and 25 million").
Moved into the Archive
It's the Internet's collaborative encyclopedia. If you're reading an article in Wikipedia and spot a mistake, you may -- without needing any kind of registration or special software -- simply click the text and edit the mistake away. If you feel the article needs more detail, you can type it in on your own initiative. If it's too wordy, you can trim it. The hope is that all the articles will be incrementally improved, getting better all the time as teams of self-motivated experts refine their chosen fields.
How important is Wikipedia?
Wikipedia's Google rank is 8/10, which puts it at the same level as Bartleby, the CIA World Factbook, CNN, FindLaw, the Guardian, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, the official U.S. time, the Onion, Slate, and the Washington Post.
Wikipedia has a higher Google rank than A&E's Biography, Artchive, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Bible Gateway, the Cruel Site of the Day, Daily Kos, Drudge Report, the History Channel, Homestar Runner, Newsweek, the Smoking Gun, Snopes, the Straight Dope, Wonkette (all 7/10), AesopFables.com, the Brick Testament, Free Republic, Jump The Shark, Landover Baptist Church, Memepool, Mr. Cranky, Mr. Picassohead, the Museum Of Bad Art, the Museum of Hoaxes, the Naked News, and Who Would Buy That? (all 6/10).
Wikipedia is less popular than the BBC, the Internet Movie Database, MapQuest, and the White House (Google Rank: 9/10).
If you search "according to Wikipedia" through Google News, you'll see that real news agencies cite Wikipedia all the time.
In other words, people take it seriously, more like CNN than the Naked News.
You know, if you see a mistake in Wikipedia, you can just fix it instead of whining about it.
I said the same thing to my neighbor the other day:
- Him: "Your car is loud, and it's spewing noxious fumes."
- Me: "Well, go ahead and fix it. I won't mind."
Basically, it's not my responsibility to fix Wikipedia, but if they're spreading bad information, it is my responsibility to point that out.
Wikipedia is self-correcting. An expert who spots an error can instantly fix it.
There are three fallacies with that argument:
- Why would an expert, let's say a professor of botany, even be reading an encyclopedia article on botany? If she has a question about botany, she's going to look at a journal or treatise. She won't look it up on Wikipedia. Therefore she won't even see the error in the first place.
- If a professor of botany wants to spread knowledge about her field, she has more useful outlets than Wikipedia. She can write a magazine article or textbook or set up her own web site.
- Even if our hypothetical botany professor wrote a Wikipedia article, what will prevent a junior high school student who thinks he knows better from coming along a day later an changing it?
People should know better than to believe everything they read anyway.
Yep, that's my favorite line from Animal House: "You f---ed up. You trusted us."
Wikipedians want it both ways. They want Wikipedia to be treated as an authoritative and legitimate research tool, but when someone points out that they don't deserve that level of respect, Wikipedians claim that no one deserves that kind of respect, and besides, they didn't want that anyway.
So what's your problem?
Five things distress me.
- Wikipedia gives instant visibility and credibility to any crackpot notion that you insert. For example, if I wanted to promote the idea that Mussolini was a terrific dancer, I could set up my own web site dedicated to the terpsichorean tyrant, but I'd probably get only one visitor a month who would immediately recognize me as a nutcase. Or I could just add a few lines to Wikipedia's Dance and Mussolini articles, and suddenly my notion has a Google rank of 8. And because the rest of the article seems sensible and has a few footnotes, visitors will believe what I tell them.
- Lazy people cite Wikipedia way too often. If an online essay includes an obscure term, let's say "McMansion" or "falsifiability", the author might be afraid that his readers won't understand, so he will often include a link to an explanation. He has three ways of filling the other end of the link:
- Explain it himself. (That's a lot of work.)
- Google the term, read the results from four or five different websites, and then decide which is best. (That's a lot of work, too.)
- Point to the Wikipedia article, which is simply a matter of typing "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/obscure_term". Let Wikipedia explain it. Quick and easy. Unfortunately, it boosts Wikipedia's search engine visibility at the expense of sites that may do the job better.
- The surging popularity of Wikipedia is crowding out other sources of information. Most of my Google searches nowadays bring up Wikipedia and a couple of its bastard offspring among the first ten hits. I wouldn't have a problem with Wikipedia if it didn't replicate all across the web. After all, I have no problem with the Internet Movie Database dominating its field, but that's because the IMDB stays in one place.
- Most articles I see concerning Wikipedia fall into three categories:
- Enthusiastic insiders praising it with religious fervor.
- Naive outsiders who are overwhelmed, but certainly impressed, by the sheer size of the encyclopedia. They usually believe Wikipedia's spin that "experts in the field" review all Wikipedia articles before they go online.
- Grumpy Luddites who suspect there's something wrong, but can't quite put their fingers on it.
- (The missing fourth category would be informed criticism. I haven't seen much, but I'd like to encourage some.)
- I've had a web site for 8 years, and Wikipedia is the only -- repeat, only -- place I've ever had to police my copyrights. Some Wikipedians seem to think that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.
Well, let's see if anyone actually looks at this page:
since 11 March 2005