Fount of all wisdom - and foolery
March 8 2007
The flaws of Wikipedia have been spectacularly revealed, but that's part of the fun, says Cassandra Jardine
George Bush had a quiet day yesterday. Liz Hurley's wedding was ignored. The definition of "Muslim" remained stable. Even "cheese" was left alone. These are strange times on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute and which pops up when you type virtually anything - from "toenails" to "nookie" - into a search engine.
The virtual amnesty on the most popular subjects of debate and update has occurred because the nitpickers of cyberspace have a real scandal of their own to deal with. They've spent this week working on an obscure-sounding Wiki entry - Essjay - collectively passing hundreds of hours squabbling over the wording.
Suddenly, the medium has become the message. For Essjay is the pseudonym of a man who was considered one of Wikipedia's most august editors, the kind of academic who gave the enterprise respectability. "A tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States", he had edited more than 20,000 entries, correcting items on "penitential rites" and "transubstantiation", and, recently, sitting on Wikipedia's judging panels, adjudicating on disputes with seasoned gravitas.
The problem is that Essjay has been unmasked after an article in The New Yorker in which he was quoted. He turns out to be Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college drop-out from Kentucky who had become hooked on "Wiki crack" - devotees' jargon for the thrill of seeing your efforts debated.
His ruse is enough to make me - and many other parents and journalists - blush. Relying on Wikipedia for research for newspaper articles, school essays and even theses has become part of daily life - as has the embarrassment of repeating its mistakes. If you want information about something, fast (Wiki comes from the Hawaiian for "quick"), Wikipedia is the way. Britannica might have more of a name, but it costs £4.99 to subscribe for a month. Who can be bothered when what seems like a reliable alternative is available for free?
Deep down, though, we all knew it wasn't that reliable. And its patchiness is glaringly obvious when a controversial figure, such as the paediatrician Prof David Southall, gets just a few lines, even though the Attorney General is reviewing cases in which he has appeared as an expert witness, while Jordan (aka Katie Price) and her surgically enhanced breasts merit yards of analysis.
Yet we keep using it. In its six-year history, Wikipedia has been phenomenally successful. There are now more than 1,600,000 entries in English alone. And that's just one of the "more than a hundred languages" in which Wikipedia has entries, according to its entry about itself. Pretty impressive, except that, just a few paragraphs further down, the same entry says Wikipedia has "more than 200 different languages". If they can't sort out their own facts...
The problem is that there is no "they"; there's only founder Jimmy Wales, assisted by thousands of anonymous others tinkering with subjects about which they may (or may not) know anything. The science entries were recently judged by Nature magazine to be scarcely less reliable than those in Britannica, but elsewhere it is as gappy as Emmenthal.
Christine Kelly, historian of the Crimean War, is shocked by the skimpy entry on camp-follower and diarist Fanny Duberly, the subject of her latest book. "Everything is taken from one book," she says. "It's all from secondary sources, so errors get repeated."
The answer is to click the edit button, follow instructions and improve the offering. Unfortunately, those who know most can't always be bothered. Wiki contributors have a narrow demographic profile: white, young, male, Christian and Jewish.
Mrs Duberly is no longer around to be upset by what is said about her on Wikipedia, but living subjects don't always like what they find.
Take Cristina Odone, former editor of the Catholic Herald. The entry on her began as a "stub", the beginnings of an article inviting additions. "Then it became poisonous," she says. "Someone - always the same person - kept putting in anything that might make me sound bigoted or anti-liberal. I removed them but they kept being re-entered."
After a year of editing battles, she was saved by an Open University professor who brought the debate to the attention of the judging panel. "It has now stopped," she says, "but the person could start again under a new identity."
Sadly, in all my thousands of visits, I have never come across one of those eyebrow-raising gems of Wiki vandalism, such as the one in which Tony Blair was described as "George Bush's bitch-boy" or when someone wrote that Robbie Williams's livelihood came from eating hamsters in pubs "in and around Stoke".
But I keep hoping. The quirkiness is part of the fun of Wikipedia. Essjay has provided a reminder that any given entry could have been written by someone as ignorant as ourselves. On the other hand, no one has taken issue with his edits, only his assumed persona, so perhaps the real lesson of this democratic medium is that college drop-outs might be as authoritative as professors.