Facts and friction: Wikipedia's quest for credibility
By STEPHEN HUTCHEON
Tuesday, 24 April 2007
In the galaxy of A-list dotcom entrepreneurs, Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales is one of the brightest stars. He's become to the web what Bob Geldof was to famine relief: an almost saintly guru, a visionary who has pooled the talents of many for the greater good.
Last year Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
And that makes him the odd man out among his well-heeled peers. The organisation he co-founded is a registered charity and befitting that status, he eschews the trappings of conspicuous wealth. He's not sitting on a pile of stock options. When he sets off on one of his many proselytising sorties, he reportedly prefers to fly economy. And although he once owned a Ferrari, he now drives a Hyundai.
He's a derring-do do-gooder with a simple if ambitious mission statement.
My goal," he said last month, "is to give a free encyclopedia to every single person on this planet."
That's part of the pitch he'll be making when he arrives in Australia this week on a speaking tour.
The freebie he speaks of is not one of those weighty tomes of knowledge that was the standard reference tool before search engines came along. He's talking, of course, about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written and edited by its users.
From its start in January 2001, the site has grown exponentially to encompass about 7 million articles in 251 languages. Every second of the day, Wikipedia's servers are bombarded with between 10,000 and 30,000 page requests.
The US rating agency comScore World Metrix calculates that the combined Wikipedia sites received more than 192 million unique visitors in February, making it the world's sixth most visited website - behind those run by giants such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo.
Its collaborative structure and its altruistic ideals have won the website many plaudits and awards and - importantly - the financial backing that keeps it going. With more than 75,000 active volunteer contributors ranging from scholars to knowledgeable nobodies, Wikipedia is often held up as a stellar example of how to tap the wisdom of the masses.
But all is not well in the house that Wales co-founded. Wikipedia is going through some painful times. It relies on the whim of donors to stay afloat, the ranks of its critics are swelling and it is facing more competition from other online encyclopedias, which may pull away volunteers, eyeballs and kudos.
Wikipedia is suffering from a credibility crisis. Some - such as the Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, who left the organisation in 2002 - say the malaise goes even deeper. He describes the organisation as "completely dysfunctional" and is heading for a reckoning.
Buffeted by a string of recent acts of vandalism, sabotage and deceit, Wales seems to be spending more and more time defending Wikipedia and patching the cracks.
Wales, a 40-year-old former futures trader who grew up in Alabama, says he is not unduly worried about the petty acts of vandalism, most of which are quickly fixed by the Wikipedia community.
"I remember several years ago when the story of the week, every week, was some outrageous thing going on at eBay - someone selling their head, someone selling their baby, someone selling their soul," he says.
"And then after a while I think people got used to the idea of people [who] post goofy things and then they take it down. And the stories didn't seem so interesting anymore and so they stopped appearing in the media."
The problem Wales alludes to is not that vandalism happens, but that the press reports what he sees in many cases as nothing more than a scrawl on a wall.
"As long as we've got this massive, public collaborative project to build an encyclopedia there are gonna be weird things that happen. That's basically the cost of doing business."
In a case last month, the biography page of an American comedian called Sinbad was altered to include the "news" that he had died of a heart attack that morning. Word of his demise quickly spread around the net before the hoax was discovered and the entry fixed.
"Well, it was on our site for less than 30 minutes and yet there's been at least 50 news stories about it coming in from all over the world," Wales says, sounding frustrated. "Somebody vandalises Wikipedia and it's not really a news story, right? It just happens and then we fix it and it's not that exciting."
But if you ask Sanger, the man credited with putting the "wiki" in Wikipedia, the root of the problem lies with the unswerving attachment to the principle of anonymity.
Sanger has just launched Citizendium, an online collaborative encyclopedia based on the same wiki structure but with greater editorial control and no anonymous contributions. "The reason I started Citizendium is because something I helped bring into the world [Wikipedia] had a real potential for abuse that bothered me greatly," he says. "Ultimately, I think I owe it to people - if I can - to do something better."
Sanger, who parted company with Wales after what he describes as a "primordial struggle" with elements of the volunteer hierarchy, says Wikipedia's problem is its unflinching commitment to anonymous contributions - "a kind of radical egalitarianism about knowledge".
"As long [as] they hold those two policies as firmly as they do - and I don't see how they can change - they are never going to be able to produce a really credible encyclopedia," he says. "They are always going to have behavioural problems and they are always going to have articles that tend not towards the most authoritative view on the subject but towards the opinion of the most active Wikipedia contributors."
Wales disagrees. He maintains that anonymity underpins the structure of the Wikipedia community. "I think there's basically zero problems that can be solved by eliminating anonymity," he says.
Unfortunately the work of anonymous vandals is not confined to petty pranks. In 2005 Brian Chase, a manager at a delivery service in Nashville, played a trick on a co-worker by posting a fabrication on Wikipedia.
The entry linked John Seigenthaler, a respected retired journalist, free speech advocate and political adviser, to the Kennedy assassinations.
The entry stayed unchallenged for 132 days, even after it had been checked by a Wikipedia volunteer who edited the entry three days after it was posted to correct a spelling mistake.
"I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool," Seigenthaler wrote in an article after discovering the slur.
In February this year Wikipedia was hit by another scandal facilitated in large part by the cloak of anonymity.
One of its most prolific contributors, who purported to be a theology professor, turned out to be a 24-year-old uni drop-out. Writing under the screen name Essjay, Ryan Jordan contributed over 20,000 Wikipedia entries, some of which were based on information culled from books such as Catholicism for Dummies. Worse still, he was also a member of a high-ranking Wikipedia committee responsible for vetting other people's work.
After both incidents, changes were made to Wikipedia's rules of engagement to reduce the risk of these types of issues cropping up again.
Wales says his team is also working on ways to reduce the number of these incidents in part by giving Wikipedians better tools to deal with these incidents.
"I think the thing that's foremost is the forthcoming feature of the software, what we called stable versions which will allow the community to flag particular versions of articles as being non-vandalised," he says.
Those new measures came too late for history department faculty members at Middlebury College in the US. In January, they passed a resolution forbidding students from using the online encyclopedia for academic assignments.
It might have been one faculty in a small university but it generated a lot of coverage and debate about the academic quality of Wikipedia's entries and the checks and balances used to weed out the errors.
Wales says the Middlebury experience is an isolated case. For the most part, he says, educators are positive towards Wikipedia.
"If you say 'well we're going to tell our students not to use Wikipedia', that is like telling them not to listen to rock'n'roll music. You're just kidding yourselves. It's an incredibly valuable resource," he says.
"The right approach is to teach students about the strengths, the limitations and why you shouldn't cite Wikipedia as a source in a paper. To teach them what is the role of an encyclopedia in the research process."
SRIPT WITH 'JUST ERRORS'
Jimmy Wales's life reads like a Hollywood script - which is probably why there's said to be a couple of books and a documentary in the works.
Born in 1966 in Huntsville, Alabama, where his father worked in a grocery store, Wales began his education in a small private school which he later described as "an Abe Lincoln type of thing".
Called the House of Learning, the school was run by his mother and grandmother and it's where the Wikipedia thing started. "I just spent many, many hours just poring over the World Book Encyclopedia," he told a C-Span interviewer in 2005.
Wales studied finance at university before going to work in Chicago as a futures and options trader. He quit after he had "made enough money".
"I'm not a wealthy person but I'm a person who lives within my means," he said.
That's the potted history of a boy from the Deep South who made good, much of which can be found on Wales's Wikipedia entry. You'll also find on the entry a reference to his attempt in 2005 to airbrush his biography.
Under the subtitle "Controversy" there's reference to what his erstwhile partner Larry Sanger described as an attempt "to rewrite history". In particular, references to Sanger as "co-founder" were removed. Even today, Wales refers to himself as the "founder" of the online encyclopedia.
Wales was also accused of modifying reference to a company called Bomis which he started about 1998 and of downplaying the observations that it carried soft-core porn content.
Sanger says Bomis began as a primitive form of online collaboration where users organised so-called "webrings", a collection of websites based on a particular theme.<
He says in 2000, the Bomis Babe Report, which he described as being like an early blog, was launched. "And it gave news about naked ladies - a little bit about porn stars, a little bit about celebrities who took their clothes off, that sort of thing."
Sanger, who was hired by Wales as an employee of Bomis, says he had nothing to do with this side of the business. "I was just the encyclopedia guy."
Later on, Bomis launched a pay product called Bomis Premium which Sanger says was a "softcore porn website" which "didn't actually feature depictions of sex - except between girls - but it did have anatomical displays".
Wales says that although he still holds shares in Bomis, "it's pretty much dead". He describes the Bomis phase as "a dotcom boom era fun time to be in the business because there were all kinds of crazy ideas going on".
Those "fun times" probably included the occasion Wales posed on a yacht wearing a peaked naval captain's hat, flanked by two female models dressed in what looks like undies and Bomis-branded T-shirts.
"In fact [Bomis] was a pretty much general search engine with everything from Thomas Jefferson to pop culture," Wales says.
While Wales admits to the fine-tuning, he says there was no controversy about it in the Wikipedia community until "the media caught wind of it and thought it was a big deal".
"In my biography there were just errors and they needed to be fixed," he says.
Jimmy Wales will speak at in Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne this week. For more details visit: educationau.edu.au