Wikipedia is one of the best sites on the internet– volunteers compile information about esoteric topics and the entire compilation is a giant guide to the universe. The beauty of the site is that the internet community has created a vast encyclopedia without a single editor.
Nature compared Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica and found that the upstart contains only slightly fewer errors: Internet encyclopaedias go head to head: “The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.”
Wikipedia is becoming more frequently cited as a trusted source, despite potential for inaccuracies and often amateur writing and organization (just like this blog!) Evan Brown reports at InternetCases.com: Wikipedia and the courts: “lthough not everyone is convinced that Wikipedia can be trusted to always tell the truth, it is interesting to note that in the past year or so several courts, including more than one federal circuit court, have cited to it to fill in background facts relevant to cases before them. ”
The problem with Wikipedia is that the internet community has created a vast encyclopedia without a single editor. Entries can contain factual inaccuracies or present topics in a skewed, biased manner. Wikipedia needs editors. Who chooses the experts for a particular field?
At the Volokh Conspiracy, Orin Kerr finds an interesting relationship between the level of general interest in a subject and the accuracy of that subject’s Wikipedia entry: Checking in on Wikipedia’s Patriot Act Entry:
I have found Wikipedia entries to be quite helpful when the topic is something esoteric. It seems that when fewer people care about a topic, the better the entry tends to be. When lots of people care about something, lots of people think they know something about it — or at least more people feel strongly enough that they want to get their 2 cents worth into the entry. When lots of people have strong opinions about a topic, even uninformed ones, the Wikipedia entry for that topic ends up being something like Tradesports betting odds on who Bush would pick to replace Justice O’Connor. It’s an echo chamber for the common wisdom of the subset of people who use the site more than anything else. And if the views in the echo chamber happen to be way off, then so is the entry.
This suggests that the common wisdom may be entirely backwards. Instead of greater interest leading to greater accuracy, the more people who have a strong interest in a topic, the more likely it is that discredited or inaccurate theories will find their way into that topic’s Wikipedia entry. Vocal critics of a widely accepted theory may be more likely than well-respected experts to spend time crafting the Wikipedia entry, so that the end result is that the Wikipedia entry is more likely to reflect the generally discredited minority view.
In an op-ed piece in USA Today, John Seigenthaler discussed A false Wikipedia ‘biography’: “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.”
Mike Godwin thinks that this problem is not limited to Wikipedia, but is endemic of the Internet as a whole: Wikilibel: “To me, the notable thing about this incident is that it seems to have given John and others doubts about Wikipedia in particular, when in fact the problems he sees are endemic to the Web and the Internet at large.”
Unlike posting a random website on the internet at large containing the same defamatory text, posting the information at Wikipedia gives it credibility. The first place most internet users look to assess the credibility of a piece of information is the source. Because Wikipedia contains a growning number of thorough, accurate and well-written entries, Wikipedia as a whole is gaining a reputation as a trusted source for information. According to the Wikipedia entry about Wikipedia, “Articles in Wikipedia are regularly cited by both the mass media and academia, who generally praise it for its free distribution, editing, and diverse range of coverage.” An incomplete, incorrect or defamatory article posted to Wikipedia gains from the authority of the accurate entries.
Eric Goldman believes that Wikipedia Will Fail Within 5 Years: “Wikipedia inevitably will be overtaken by the gamers and the marketers to the point where it will lose all credibility. There are so many examples of community-driven communication tools that ultimately were taken over—-USENET and the Open Directory Project are two that come top-of mind.”
Unless Wikipedia starts to implement a strong editorial policy, the entire project will become suspect because of entries like the one about Siegenthaler. Wikipedia is at a critical point in that it has enough entries and reputation that by continuing to allow anyone to edit any entry may harm the future development of the project.
As with any controversial topic these days, some lawyers are already preparing a Wikipedia Class Action.