Tricky truths behind Wikipedia
By Alex Beam, Globe Columnist
March 12, 2007
About six months ago, I noticed that I had an entry in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. I was flattered. It was short, and named both my father and one of my sons, confirming my belief that I am a transitional piece of genetic material, linking two very talented generations.
I don't know who wrote it, but it lacked the usual lazy tropes of onanistic buffery you so often see in journalists' bios: "award-winning columnist . . . nominated for the Pulitzer Prize." My dog can nominate me for the Pulitzer Prize, OK? In fact, I think she has.
Maybe a month ago, a friend remarked to my son , "I didn't know that your Dad hated Canada." How embarrassing. I thought I was the guy spotted singing "Ode to Newfoundland" in a St. John's beer hall. I thought I was the guy who fled to Nova Scotia, the "peaceable kingdom," the week after Sept. 11. I thought I was the guy suspected of being on permanent retainer to Snow Mexico, one of my favorite countries in the world.
But no. In January, someone added this to my Wikipedia entry: "Beam has been a writer of many anti-Canadian articles. His views on Canada are very well documented, he firmly believes Canada is a semi-communist or socialist state. He . . . has attracted the scorn of Canadians who follow his articles closely and ensure that his editors are notified of any anti-Canadian writings with a barrage of complaints."
Pretty harsh, eh?
Wikipedia has had plenty of bad publicity lately. Allow me to bring you up to date. Last month, Middlebury College's history department banned the use of Wikipedia citations in exams or papers, because an error about Japanese history -- since corrected -- showed up in several exams. Last week, a prominent, pseudonymous Wiki contributor lionized by The New Yorker as a tenured professor of religion turned out to be . . . a 24-year-old who used the book "Catholicism for Dummies" to write and edit entries.
After initially standing by his contributor "EssJay," Wiki founder Jimbo Wales confessed, "It was a scandal. And I have apologized for my role in it."
How very unsurprising that Wikipedia is starting to face competition. As of last fall, two other online encyclopedias, Scholarpedia.org and Citizendium.org have gone live. Both are offering a Wikipedia-like product, with adult supervision. "In particular, many of us think that Wikipedia's attempts to paper over its very public mini-scandals with minor changes have been weak," according to Citizendium. "It is pretty clear to us that Wikipedia will probably never seriously attempt to solve what we, at least, regard as the central problems of the project."
More recently, Conservapedia.com has appeared on the web, billing itself as "a much-needed alternative to Wikipedia, which is increasingly anti-Christian and anti-American." Dividing knowledge into "Christian" and "anti-Christian" is like distinguishing "Democratic" from "Republican" pollsters. The facts should be the facts, no? Apparently not.
The proverbial bottom line is that the theoretical underpinning of Wikipedia, the fashionable notion of "crowdsourcing," or "the wisdom of crowds," is nonsense. There is no wisdom in crowds. The crowd drinks Coke. The crowd elects George Bush or -- God forbid -- John Kerry. The crowd accepts authority unquestioningly, especially when it's dressed up as a "cool" new information source. So who would you rather have write your encyclopedia entries? Bertrand Russell, T.H. Huxley, and Benedetto Croce, who wrote for the Britannica? Or . . . EssJay?
Enough about them. What about me? I complained about my entry through Wikipedia's dissent channel. Nothing happened. Then a friend slipped me a magic phone number that rang in the office of Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig , the Learned Hand of the Internet bar. His helpful assistant relayed my complaint to Wales, who sits on a board with Lessig. Soon afterward , the offending paragraphs were removed.
So now my entry is a lot shorter. My family disappeared, and none of my biases, real or imagined, is on display. So I should probably say thank you to Wikipedia for making the changes, and thank you for thinking of me in the first place.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.