Via the bookmarks of an old university buddy I came across a column by Frank Ahrens in the Washington Post called Death By Wikipedia: The Kenneth Lay Chronicles.

Frank Ahren on Wikipedia

A self proclaimed wikipedia and wiki fan (which I don’t doubt) Ahrens uses the way the Wikipedia page about Enron’s Kenneth Lay got edited in the hours after Lay’s death was first reported to discuss flaws in Wikipedia. The columns itself however undermines Ahrens point, as well as leaving out the questions that we should be asking Wikipedians and Jimmy Wales about the quality and usefulness Wikipedia.

First part of the article is the basic fear mongering about the fact that anyone can edit Wikipedia. They may be written by experts or insane crazy people. Or worse, insane crazy people with an agenda, or even radicalized bloggers. Yes, they may. But at the same time it is highly unlikely that insanity will stand uncorrected for long. That wikipedia is edited by ‘everybody’ is more part of the Wikipedia mythology and folklore than reality. The fact that anyone can edit, does not mean that they will or should. Wikipedians in reality form a pretty tight community of people that not only create the bulk of its articles but also police the contributions by others, to weed out the insane crazy people with an agenda. Also wikipedia doesn’t work because every single edit works, it works because the aggregate works.

It then continues with Lay’s death on Wednesday illustrates the problem, as chronicled by the Reuters news service, which watched the Wikipedia article on Lay evolve with alarming speed and wildly inaccurate reporting. I do not doubt that the ‘reporting’ at first was inaccurate or speculative or sensationalist even. Looking at the history of the page in wikipedia July 5th shows a flurry of edits containing opinions and wild speculations (and I fail to see why the speed of editing would be alarming, as it applies to vandals and corrections alike: more fear mongering) but finally, by Wednesday afternoon, the Wikipedia entry about Lay said that he was pronounced dead at an Aspen, Colo., hospital and had died of a heart attack, citing news sources.

What it makes transparent to me is the whole process of how people tried to make sense of the news until the dust settled. It took a couple of hours. I imagine newsrooms are no different, with the big exception that they don’t put it in print or on the air, or at least a number of them don’t. When I first heard the news, my first thought was it could have been suicide. I imagine most editors in their newsrooms had the same notion and shouted to a reporter to go find out if that was the case. What we saw on the wikipedia page was a process of asking questions and looking for answers being made visible that must have been going on in every US newsroom at the same time. I agree that had no place on the wikipedia page itself, but should have been done in the attached discussion page (which yields a few interesting lines about how Reuter monitored the page). But already after a couple of hours all that messiness was gone, and what we see is the finished product. It wasn’t an article those first hours, it was a meeting place, of experts, the insane, and the crazy, with or without an agenda. Afterwards it returned to being an article that does not include any piece of speculation.

Not making a distinction between these two roles of a wiki, as a meeting place, and as a repository, makes one fail to grasp what makes Wikipedia different from both news media and an encyclopedia, makes one fail to grasp why a wiki is social software.

During the bombing of the London underground last year July, the wikipedia page about it was a meeting place as well. And a very busy one. The general level of info was good, especially because, and this is a marked and hugely important difference with the Ken Lay case as it impacts accuracy enormously, a lot of edits came from Londoners comparing their first hand observations with what they saw on the news. People outside the UK added details from news footage (including linking to screenshots) that wasn’t broadcast elsewhere etc. It was a place to pool and tell stories to collectively work out patterns and create a multi-subjective overview. The current page consists of the remaining traces of that meeting, and a much tidier set of traces than you get after a regular ‘party’.

Writing a piece about the fact that the process of constructing a page can be inaccurate and messy does not constitute following Wikipedia in a critical way. It merely fails to grasp the different ‘production model’. Another symptom of this in the column is the extremely odd mixing of discussing Wikipedia’s quality as an encyclopedia using a case of news gathering and reporting as proof in point.

If you want to ask critical questions about Wikipedia, because you just want them to be better why not ask and research these questions:

  • How is the wikipedia community divided socially, culturally, professionally and geographically and how does that impact the articles written, both in terms of subjects and themes, as in terms of viewpoint? Is it diverse enough, representative enough of the global community?
  • How aware is the wikipedia community of this effect itself, and does it take pro-active steps to balance things? Is it reaching out to people to become a healthier community? How healthy is it as a network?
  • Is wikipedia living up to its own standards of quality?
  • How well is wikipedia serving the ideals of the wikipedia foundation?
  • How does wikipedia relate to the other projects the wikipedia foundation is doing?
  • How good is the wikipedia community in policing content, and how ‘sane’ is their judgment? Is it changing, developing over time, and in which direction?

You see these are all questions about community life really, about how healthy that community is, and not so much editorial questions or about quality of each action. We then should turn around and ask those same questions about our news media and our encyclopedic institutions. And about ourselves. The wikipedians community’s health determines the quality of Wikipedia, our society’s health the quality of the press, our personal social health the quality of all our lives. What does that say about Frank Ahrens hit piece?

(illustration Web Watch taken from Washington Post website as fair use)

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