Monday, December 12, 2005

Being "Wiki'ed"

"I've been Wiki'ed" may become part of the American, and maybe the worldwide vocabulary, before long.

First, there was the John Seigenthaler Sr. incident, in which a Wikipedia page with phony information, including the suggestion that Seigenthaler was involved in the Kennedy assassinations, was posted and remained available for several months (details in the revised, corrected Wikipedia article). Siegenthaler raised a rukus that included a USAToday op-ed article that touched off debate about the kind of collaborative effort that Wikipedia represents. (There is so much out there, I've just linked to one article as an example.)

Now comes a complaint from conservative raido talker Michael Graham that a bogus Wiki article was also posted on him. (The article has been edited to take out much of the material Graham found untrue and is marked as a candidate for deletion, so if it is not there when you get there ...). While the offending material has been deleted, the talk page that accompanies the article has some detail and some testy conversations.

So where do we stand.
1) Siegenthaler's defamer has been unmasked.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A man who posted false information on an online encyclopedia linking a prominent journalist to the Kennedy assassinations says he was playing a trick on a co-worker.

Brian Chase, 38, ended up resigning from his job and apologizing to John Seigenthaler Sr., the former publisher of the Tennessean newspaper and founding editorial director of USA Today.

Chase worked for a small delivery company. His impression of Wikipedia, he says, was that it was "some sort of 'gag' encyclopedia."
2) Chase's Wiki biography, assembled in the past couple of days, is marked for possible deletion.
3) Graham's biography is marked for possible deletion.
4) Seigenthaler's is frozen against other changes, but as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales notes in the talkback section of Seigenthaler's article:
Those concerned about the historical record should know that of course all the old revisions are stored in the database so in 100 years when historians want to study this incident, they can. It's just that it would be deeply inappropriate (always) for us to keep revisions of those sort public.
5) Wales has imposed restrictions on who can edit and update articles to include a required registration.
6) A fair number of people on the talk site that accompanies the Seigenthaler article have suggested, as one poster did: All of this could have been avoided if you merely stuck to your guns and told Seigenthaler to edit the article himself.
7) Some in trad media types (at least a fair amount of those e-mailing me and others) are leaping to point out how this shows how all this consumer-created content is dangerous and unreliable, and people will get sued, and (by implication) it would be better to leave things to the pros.

Allow me then some observations (and a disclaimer: I know Michael Graham from his time here in Columbia. I've been to parties at his house. He's a decent guy to sit down and have a conversation with. I enjoy reading his column and often laugh with him or at him. You can judge for yourself, but none of that, I don't think, is reflected in what follows.) Graham writes: I certainly don't want to shut Wikipedia down, any more than I want to shut down CBS News or the New York Times, both of which have knowingly given their customers false information. I just want to make sure we all realize that -- like the newspapers and the network news we once relied on for facts -- you can no longer use Wikipedia as a definitve source.

1) "You can no longer use Wikipedia as a definitive source"?! -- Pardon me Michael, but that's one boneheaded statement. You never could use Wikipedia as a definitive source. Because it is open source, Wikipedia has always been subject to numerous weaknesses, biases and subtle spin. And despite Wales' faith in the swarming acccuracy of the masses cross-checking each other, when it comes to individual articles that "swarm" (or as Clay Shirky calls them "social antibodies") can break down for more obscure entries. Shirky notes an IBM study that "vandalism" was short-lived on contentious subjects. But consider that Seigenthaler's bio was up for months before he found out about the wild inaccuracies. Graham says the same thing about his bio.
  1. The real disgrace here is information literacy in this country, that anyone would use a community-produced, Internet-based resource like this as a definitive source -- yet I see students do it more and more, and fellow professors are starting to have their share of "Wiki" stories from papers. And I hear about its use being encouraged in high school and, perhaps, lower grades. STOP IT! Wikipedia is very good at one basic thing -- providing a starting place to further explore a subject. Yes, some of its articles are very well sourced and accurate, often done by experts in the subject who could hold their own with any printed encyclopedia's editorial staff (see the article on WOWO, where I used to work. It's right on the money.) But there is a reason Wiki articles have links (something mainstream media still have yet to come to grips with in many of their online offerings). It's so you can go check it out further yourself and document the assertions and judgments that any such article contains by its very nature.
  2. If I were Wales, I'd be concerned about Chase's impression that Wikipedia was some sort of "gag" encylopedia. Sure, it's easy to dismiss Chase as some kind of fool. But go look at the various survey numbers. Before we get too big for our britches, let's remember that despite all this double-digit growth we hear about, when it comes to public perception of what the "magic box" can do, Chase's view may be more common than we want to admit.

2) Two things from the Wikiites disturb me:

  1. Wales' note that the rotten stuff, even if shown to be false, is being kept around digitally so that historians can see exactly what happened. Oh sure, the reporter part of me screams "yes, source documents!" But another part says that when you have a piece of rotten fruit, you cut out the rotten part and throw it away. Because a piece of digital vitriol is so much more contagious and viral than forms of communication we have known until now, I think the throw-away option is the better one.
  2. This idea that if a third part opts you in, you have to opt yourself out, as expressed by the pseudonymous poster Kaltes in his "stick to your guns" post in the Talk section of the Seigenthaler article. I don't think so, if for no other reason that in me vs. the world, the world always wins. As Graham notes, what happens if my edit gets edited and then I edit the edit, etc? At some point it becomes onerous. Easy ways need to be in place to dispute all or parts of such content, whether it be on a Wiki, a blog or shewhere else, and to get quck decisions and action. I should have to do no more than send a quick e-mail to get that started unlike the tortured process Seigenthaler had to follow with the help of an expert friend.

3) I do think Kaltes has insight, however, in noting the conundrum sites like this face when they start getting into judging what copy stays. You would be forced to choose between a rock and a hard place: either you delete anything and everything upon request regardless of how you feel about the merits of this request, or you play judge and jury deciding what requests to comply with and what to refuse. If you take the former path, it would be a grevious blow to free speech and wikipedia's credibility, and if you take the latter approach, you might very well end up getting sued by the persons whose demands you do not obey. Life's a bunch of tough choices.

4) The "pros" need to get off this jag of "this shows how this kind of stuff can't possibly work," and "just wait till someone gets sue; that'll end it" and -- by extension the argument we've heard a lot lately with the industry's economic troubles -- "wthout newspapers there would be no blogs, TV news, etc."

  1. Hate to tell you this, but were newspapers to disappear on Tuesday, it would be maybe until ... say, Friday, before replacements started appearing. Nope, they might not be newspapers. They might be single-publisher sites by a bunch of laid-off journalists who want to do tough, specialized reporting and storytelling. They might be community storytelling sites like Hartsville Today or collaboration sites like Wikipedia. It probably will be all of them. And sure, there will be stories that don't get covered (like some don't get now?) and a time of adjustment. But someone else is going to figure out the newspaper was largely a big aggregating device for a lot of individual storytellers called journalists and come up with a business model for doing that digitally. And as some places have shown, it's possible to produce a paper product from the digital. (See also this from Missouri.)
  2. The legal system has shown time and time again it is willing to adapt to new technologies and the ways people use them. Yes, there probably will be lawsuits at some point, but I won't be surprised to find the legal system come up with some new, and likely less onerous (than libel) remedies.

So bottom line: We can't, as an industry, deny or devalue the existence and attraction of such "participatory media." Some of our readers -- generally the ones who have the economic and social profiles publishers want -- have told us for years they want a seat at the table. Who cares if it's Pareto's 20 percent. Those 20 percent can cause 100 percent heartburn.

The legal system is likely to come up with new remedies, perhaps a sort of quick-strike arbitration system geared to the digital age. But I think it is also likely to become more fault tolerant.

And we can hope, though I have my doubts, that people will take the Wikipedias of the world for what they are -- good places to start your information journey, but not to end it.


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