In this episode of Cassidy’s Wikipedia Exploration, we go over my research findings. Many people have opinions about Wikipedia it seems. Let’s take a look.
- Studying Cooperation and Conflict between Authors with history flow Visualizations (IBM Research & MIT Media Lab, 2004)
In a research project from IBM, I picked out a few bits that I thought were interesting.
- “…a defining feature is that any reader of the site may also be an author. Each page has an “edit this page” link at the bottom, allowing users to change the content of the page. This interface supports a higher level of consensus building because a user who disagrees with a statement can very easily delete it. In this sense, the text on wiki pages is content that has survived the critical eye of the community.”
- “Rejecting the traditional method of having each article written by an expert and subjected to review, fact-checking and editing, they took the opposite tack: on Wikipedia, content can be added or changed at any time by anyone on the Internet. To many, this approach—so vulnerable to mistakes, ignorance and malice—seems a flatly ridiculous way of producing a serious reference tool. The mystery of Wikipedia is that despite the obvious potential drawbacks of its openness, it has enjoyed significant success. It currently contains articles on more than 100,000 subjects, and from July 2002 to July 2003, it averaged 150,000 page views and 3,300 edits per day…”
- “Our chief conclusion is that Wikipedia and its audience must be viewed as a system in which constant change is a source of strength as well as weakness. The site is subject to frequent vandalism and inaccuracy, just as skeptics might suspect—but the active Wikipedia community rapidly and effectively repairs most damage. Indeed, one type of malicious edit we examined is typically repaired within two minutes.”
- “Most wikis (including Wikipedia) have archiving systems that record all previous edits of a page and make it simple to revert to an earlier version. If the ease of adding a contribution is a distinguishing feature of a wiki, so too, paradoxically, is the ease of removing contributions of others by reverting an edit. This archiving system ensures that no permanent harm can be caused by bad editing.”
- “The Wikipedia community also sets up secondary pages that are devoted to the discussion of issues surrounding the topics on “real” pages; these are sometimes called “talk pages.” They represent an attempt to separate what is “real” information from discussions about what should and should not be on the real page.”
- “We sought statistical corroboration for our impression that vandalism is frequent and that it is fixed very rapidly. It is essentially impossible to find a crisp definition of vandalism —as mentioned above, the Wikipedia community argues about it frequently—but there are certain computable markers that indicate vandalism.”
- “We defined a mass deletion (“Mass delete,” or MD, in Table 1) to be a version that was at least 90% smaller than the previous maximum size for the page, did not redirect the user to a different page, and wasn’t created by a Wikipedia administrator. While this category included many malicious edits, it also included many edits that, on close inspection, seemed well intentioned. To pinpoint a group of purely ill-intentioned edits, we looked at mass deletions where the remaining text included the word “fuck,” 2 labeled “MD obscene” in Table 1. This group included 47 edits, all of which seemed (to the authors of this paper) unmistakably malicious.”
- “A second pattern revealed by our visualizations is a zigzag arrangement that lasts for a few versions before dying out [Fig. 6]. On closer inspection we realized these patterns indicated what the Wikipedia community calls ‘edit wars,’ interactions where two people or groups alternate between versions of the page. Some edit wars last as long as 20 consecutive versions…To our surprise we found that edit wars are not confined to controversial topics. One such example is the page on Chocolate [Fig. 6]: two users fought over whether a kind of chocolate sculpture called ‘coulage’ really existed and consequently, whether or not the paragraph about it should appear on the page. This discussion resulted in 12 consecutive versions of reverting back and forth between two versions. Eventually the paragraph was taken out for good.”
- “There is also no clear connection between anonymity and vandalism. We observed instances of vandalism by users with (sometimes tauntingly offensive) registered usernames. Conversely, there are users that contribute quite a lot to the site but who choose to remain anonymous. We found one particular case where an anonymous contributor to the page on Capitalism edited the page 55 times between Nov. 22, 2002 and Jun. 26, 2003. This person’s contributions were quite substantial and were kept by subsequent contributors.”
- A false Wikipedia ‘biography’ (John Seigenthaler)
In 2005, John Seigenthaler, the assistant to former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, wrote an opinion piece in USA Today about how he was slandered on Wikipedia. Someone had edited his page to make it look like he might have assassinated Robert Kenedy. I got some more goodies from that one.
- “At age 78, I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at anything negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer. It was mind-boggling when my son, John Seigenthaler, journalist with NBC News, phoned later to say he found the same scurrilous text on Reference.com and Answers.com.”
- “I had heard for weeks from teachers, journalists and historians about “the wonderful world of Wikipedia,” where millions of people worldwide visit daily for quick reference “facts,” composed and posted by people with no special expertise or knowledge — and sometimes by people with malice.”
A bit of a tangent. There have been some interesting hoaxes and fake pages that have been on Wikipedia throughout the years. Most of them have been somewhat silly, and went unnoticed for awhile. Here are some of my favorites.
- “Claim that the 1924 Democratic National Convention was also known as the ‘Klanbake’”
- “Fictional ancient Akkadian demon claimed to equip demons with wings in preparation for the Second Coming; also claimed to have actually been a mortal carpenter who died and rose again. Despite having no sources, the hoax was included in Theresa Bane’s Encyclopedia of Demons in World Religions and Cultures, published by McFarland & Company in 2012.”
- “Pikes on Cliffs – Fictional Spanish coastal house, claimed as the 16th-century home of a nonexistent Irish sailor who survived a death sentence from Sir Francis Drake.”
- “George K. Broomhall – Fictitious brevet general during the American Civil War who was also credited with the invention of cream soda.” (One of my favorites)
- Can you trust Wikipedia? (The Guardian, 2005)
In 2005, the Guardian rounded up a bunch of different people and asked them to examine Wikipedia and give their opinions on it. This was obviously a goldmine for me.
- “…it’s obvious that someone has taken care to make the entry factually accurate, even if the way it is written lacks clarity and doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. But with the Reich entry itself, and the links to other minimalist composers’ entries and websites, one can access an impressive amount of information quickly…7/10”
– Interviewer of Steve Reich for Wire, Mike Barnes’ review of an article about ‘Steve Reich’
- “Broadly speaking, it’s inaccurate and unclear. It talks about haute couture and then lists a large number of ready-to-wear designers. As a very, very broad-sweep description there are a few correct facts included, but every value judgment it makes is wrong…0/1”
– Editor of Vogue, Alexandra Shulman’s review of an article about ‘haute couture’
- “No glaring inaccuracies jump out at me. It doesn’t list my book in the bibliography, but there are plenty of other useful links. The Waste Land is highlighted and when I click on it, a separate entry for the book pops up. There’s a Four Quartets bit, too, and all the plays. And when I click on the year 1922, I get a page telling me what else happened that year. Eliot is at the centre of a whole web of other references. It’s purely factual and not in any way analytical, but then that’s all you want from this sort of thing…6/10”
– Author of TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, Anthony Julius’ review of an article on ‘T.S. Elliot’
- “I can’t find anything much wrong with it. I’m not very familiar with Wikipedia – I’ve never looked through the Dylan entry before. It’s reasonably comprehensive but there are such a number of obsessive Dylan fans out there to make corrections that I can’t see very much wrong. If you are just browsing and want to check something on Dylan then I guess the prose style doesn’t matter. But Dylan fans tend to be quite literary, so some of the writing might piss people off…8/10”
– Editor of the Dylan magazine Isis, Derek Barker’s review of an article on ‘Bob Dylan’
- “Reading the entry on “encyclopedia” leaves one with the impression that it was written by someone who had no previous knowledge of the subject and who, once he got into it, found it did not interest him very much. He browsed here and there in one or more reference works and noted what seemed important, but had no understanding of the cultural and historical contexts involved. In other words, it is a school essay, sketchy and poorly balanced…5/10”
– Editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1992 to 1997, Robert McHenry’s review of an article about ‘Encyclopedias’
Stay tuned for the next episode of Cassidy’s Wikipedia Exploration, where we have an interview with Melissa.