Someone had to get well and truly libelled before the mainstream media started looking at the Wikipedia through squinty eyes, but it had to happen some time.
The free-for-all on-line encyclopedia, where anyone can create, edit, or vandalize an article, has found itself on the defensive. Last week, a respected journalist and former aide to John F. Kennedy named John Seigenthaler wrote a ferociously angry piece in USA Today, execrating the Wikipedia for carrying an article that implicated him in Kennedy's assassination.
The nastiness and emptiness of that claim notwithstanding, it seems like a small matter. It was a short article about a minor figure. And since it's widely assumed that the Wikipedia is riddled with offhand errors and omissions -- it's the nature of the beast -- there shouldn't have been much here in the way of news.
But this story captured the media's attention. The bad press began to flow, to the extent that earlier this week, Wikipedia slightly altered its system to slow the tide of new material. Now users must register with a login and password -- but don't need to provide an e-mail address -- before adding new articles. Until recently, the old media has been generally fawning and adulatory about the Wikipedia; now there's blood in the water.
There's no cause to write off the Wikipedia; it remains the fantastic experiment in zeitgeist it always was. But this case stood out because it provided an excellent example of where the site comes up short.
Wikipedia operates on the theory that six billion heads are better than one. The theory goes that everyone will add to the pot from their own little stores of knowledge, and fact-check each other's work as they read the stories.
The problem is that while everyone has their specialties, the only topics on which everybody is an expert are current events, pop culture and the regurgitation thereof. The Wikipedia has a huge bias in favour of that which occurred in its readers' lifetimes, and an even bigger bias in favour of what's hot on Dec. 9, 2005. So we have situations where the entry for The Daily Show is nearly twice as long as the entry for Geoffrey Chaucer.
Practically, this means that we can be guaranteed that The Daily Show's Wikipedia entry will be exhaustively fact-checked by every fan in the neighbourhood, the same fans who inflated the article to such absurd proportions in the first place. No such luck for the John Seigenthalers of the world; his legions of fans were curiously AWOL. Arcane articles that don't attract legions of informed readers fare poorly in the Wiki model of group-hug fact-checking.
Yet the Wikipedia hypes its "comprehensiveness" as loudly as it can. In a size-does-matter kind of way, it recently crowed that it had 853,390 English articles, and counting (five months ago, that number was about 620,000). But many of those articles are the smaller ones, the arcane ones that don't have that critical mass of readers who know the subject well enough to catch errors.
The Wikipedia is a mind-blowing, fantastic creation, but you must love it on your terms, not its own. It wants to be the repository of human knowledge; it should be read like the world's biggest newspaper. It's up-to-the-minute, a little slight on the historical context and everything therein is probably correct. Unless, of course, it's not.
But enough about educating the world: Everyone knows the Internet's really about infotainment stuntmanship. Enter One Red Paperclip , which documents one Montrealer's quest to steadily trade the eponymous paperclip for marginally better objects, until he eventually gets a house. So it was that Kyle MacDonald traded his red paperclip for a pen, which was traded for a doorknob, which was traded for a Coleman stove, and so on. At press time, he'd reached "a snowmobile."
Yes, we've seen it before: Man starts with nothing, extracts something from the Internet, attracts reporters like so many lemmings, gets a book deal. But the blog itself is a good read: As MacDonald trades junk for better junk, we meet the characters who answered his call. Moreover, he says the concept has been picked up by local radio stations, who are organizing trade-ups among their listeners, with the final item to be auctioned for charity. Just in time for Christmas: a one-off Internet stunt with a heart.