When Wikipedians run amok on orderly online encyclopedia
What's the difference between an expert and an enthusiast? On Wikipedia, both have equal weight in creating and maintaining the site.
By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published December 27, 2005
DELAND - It's a title Kathleen "Kat" Walsh bears with pride.
Even as criticism builds against the St. Petersburg-based, free online encyclopedia Wikipedia - mostly because entries can be created and altered by almost anyone who views them - Walsh and her boyfriend, Greg Maxwell, remain deeply invested in their work as editors on the site.
Working up to two hours each day, Walsh and Maxwell join more than 1,800 others who regularly help create, verify and organize the project's more than 860,000 English-language entries. They clean up mistakes, repair vandalism and mediate disputes between the thousands more who contribute to one of the most popular sources of information on the Internet.
For this, Walsh and Maxwell get no pay or profit. What they do receive is status within a growing circle of true believers - Wikipedians - who swear by the bedrock ethic that an accurate, comprehensive encyclopedia can be created by letting everyone contribute what they know, whenever they like.
"We're pretty much all introverted, logical people ...(and) I like the idea that you can get all the logical people into one place to do something good," said Walsh, 23, who recently graduated from Stetson University with a bachelor's degree in music. "We have to rely that there are thousands more people interested in making the information good than making it bad."
Walsh and Maxwell admit theirs is an idealistic vision of the online service, which attracted 2.5-billion page views in November alone. With a budget of $700,000 this year - funded mostly through donations - organizers call Wikipedia the largest encyclopedia in human history.
"Wikipedia is a very social process," said co-founder Jimmy Wales, 39, who runs the project from an office in downtown St. Petersburg. "The fact that there's a community which has as its primary values accuracy, equality and openness ... people respond to that."
But Wikipedia's accuracy has come under increasing attack. Former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler Sr. started the most recent round of criticism with a column for USA Today describing how someone inserted language into his Wikipedia biography falsely stating he was suspected of involvement with the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.
Critics say that such vandalism is more frequent than Wales and other Wikipedians would like to admit and that the system gives no weight to established experts over folks like Walsh and Maxwell - enthusiasts willing to spend the time on Wikipedia needed to earn authority as editors or administrators.
One Web site, wikipediaclassaction.org, is even collecting complaints for possible legal actions against the site.
Still, Wikipedians insist they can reach Wales' goal of a "(Encyclopedia) Britannica or better" level of quality through open public submissions. A study published Dec. 15 by the science journal Nature shows they may be getting close, using the peer review process to show the average science entry in Wikipedia has four errors, compared with an average of three inaccuracies in Britannica.
"Most people think of an encyclopedia as a quick reference to find information as a starting point ... and so much of the information (on Wikipedia) is really good," said Maxwell, 26, who works for a computer equipment company. "Wikipedia doesn't depend on the public's approval for its success."
Wales described the typical Wikipedian as someone in their late 20s or 30s, often a graduate student or college professor, and frequently someone interested in and comfortable with technology.
Which leads to an obvious question: Are people who spend hours editing an encyclopedia for free a little, um, geeky?
"People who spend hours watching basketball games at home ... nobody asks them if they have a life," said Wales. "We seem to have a cultural bias against intellectual hobbies. There's this social acceptance of being in a softball league. But doing something online that's intellectual seems strange to people."
Walsh started helping shape Wikipedia in June 2004, drawn to flesh out an entry on the bassoon with her own knowledge. As Maxwell began to surf the site and complain about some of its technical entries, she urged her boyfriend to correct the mistakes himself and he got more involved.
Now the couple spend time on projects such as building the strange instruments contained in classical music parodist P.D.Q. Bach's compositions, photographing them, recording them and uploading all the material to Wikipedia.
Soft-spoken and shy - her boyfriend often answers questions directed to her - Walsh is a private person who acknowledged meeting people through Wikipedia can be easier than encountering them in real life. She assumed her interest in working on so many different areas of the site (editing entries, mediating disputes, blocking troublesome members) led her to be elected by fellow editors to become one of about 600 administrators on the English language site.
"I'm kind of a geek - I have to poke at something to see how it works," said Walsh, who navigates the site over three computer monitors placed atop a Yamaha synthesizer keyboard in her bedroom. "I was the kind of kid who would go to the library to have fun. I guess Wikipedia attracts the kind of people who would rather go to a library than out to a nightclub."
* * *
It has been weeks since Seigenthaler's Nov. 29 column turned Wikipedia's accuracy issues into a national story, but Wales is still fielding media calls.
"We thought we had dealt with this already," said Wales, adding that the false information in Seigenthaler's entry was corrected in October. "The topic of conversation now has been, "What went wrong here? What exactly can we change within our internal procedures to better guard against this sort of thing?"'
If users do not register an account with a specific log-on name, Wikipedia lists their Internet protocol address - a unique number given each machine connected to the Internet - next to any changes they make.
Usually, only the online service provider can connect an IP address with an actual name. But researcher and Wikipedia critic Daniel Brandt used a little technical know-how and detective skills to discover who vandalized Seigenthaler's biography: Brian Chase, the operations manager for a shipping company in Nashville. (Chase has since apologized to Seigenthaler and resigned his job.)
Brandt became a vocal critic of Wikipedia in October, after disagreeing with an administrator over elements in his own biographical entry, creating the Web site wikipedia-watch.org. He worries Wikipedians have grown too used to the anonymity allowed by its open structure, allowing many to avoid direct responsibility for the entries they create or edit.
"If (Wikipedia) didn't have anonymity, they wouldn't have nearly the participation that they do," said Brandt, who recommends the site require everyone to enter a valid e-mail address before creating or altering articles, to help weed out impulsive vandals.
"Wikipedia is good on articles no one cares about ... and they're good on technical articles, because it's pretty clear if you're right or wrong," he said. "For anything else, accuracy is hit or miss. Nobody knows how many bogus articles there are out there."
After the New York Times wrote about Seigenthaler's problem, business editor Larry Ingrassia sent a memo warning staffers in his department not to use Wikipedia to verify information. (The St. Petersburg Times also encourages staffers to avoid using Wikipedia as a primary source.)
"To me, the biggest problem is the (false information) ... that is done so artfully, that someone who doesn't have a deep knowledge of a subject might logically assume it to be accurate," Ingrassia said. "Newspapers are gatekeepers ... and journalists can't take that chance."
The site now requires users to register before they can create new entries. And Wikipedians recently have approved giving administrators like Walsh a new power - allowing them to "semi-restrict" entries that are often vandalized, limiting edits to registered users who have maintained the same log-on name for a certain period of time.
But people can still alter entries without providing a name, or by using a false name. And there are tales of hacker-created programs that randomly change numbers in entries up or down one value.
"It's the whole model of soft security," Wales said. "You make it just that much harder to do something bad, and easy to do something good."
A former option and futures trader, Wales hit on the idea of developing a free online encyclopedia years ago - then called Nupedia - opening the process for creating entries to the public in 2000 when traditional methods proved too slow.
Wales has often equated the development of Wikipedia to the concept of "open source" software, in which the public contributes to the design of a program, until a stable version is developed and can be freely distributed to others.
"Wikipedia is now in the development stage," said Wales, who has floated ideas of distributing a version of Wikipedia on CD or in print form (the German version is now available in CD and DVD formats). "The question for us now is, how do we get to what we would call a stable version?"
Some have suggested he isolate a version of Wikipedia in an area users would pay to access; Brandt recommended the service isolate biographical entries of living people and vet them for accuracy. But Wales flatly rejects the idea of charging for access (most of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation's activities are supported by donations).
"Sometimes people think our model implies some kind of extreme relative vision about truth ... that everybody's opinions are equal," said Wales. "But the core value of getting it right is what is critical to Wikipedia. The only formula we have is to carefully review things over and over with lots of people looking at it."
* * *
During one recent Wikipedia dispute, the subject at hand was Web-only comic strips.
One user wanted to create entries for them. Others contended the work was too obscure. Walsh was among 12 arbitrators evaluating the conflict a few weeks ago - not to decide on the validity of the entries, but to referee how users handled the dispute among themselves.
"We mostly arbitrate about behaviors. ... Someone ignores the consensus of other editors, or someone uses personal attacks," said Walsh. "It takes lots of talk."
Walsh's arbitration group is a mix of elected administrators and administrators handpicked by Wales - known as "Jimbo" to Wikipedians - to resolve the many disputes. Since facts are relatively easy to prove or disprove, conflict more often centers on smaller issues such as context, length and formatting - something to be expected in a community of detail-focused editors and posters, said Maxwell.
One user, known as Willie on Wheels, regularly replaced photos on randomly selected entries with the image of an old car. Former MTV VJ Adam Curry - known as the Podfather for his role in helping develop seminal podcasting technology - caused a stir after changing the Wikipedia entry on podcasting, raising accusations he diminished the contributions of others to expand his own role in the history.
(That's a charge Wales himself has faced, accused of altering his own biography to play down references to former editor Larry Sanger as a co-founder of Wikipedia.)
For most transgressors, a simple reminder from an editor can curb their excesses. Repeated violators can find their IP addresses suspended from contributing or banned outright, as editors and arbiters struggle to maintain a core Wikipedia ethos: a "neutral point of view" in entries.
"I really believe in making information free ... and we're just putting this information out there, for all to see," said Walsh. "One of the most prolific editors once told me, "This might be the only encyclopedia there is in 10 years. So we should probably focus on making it a good one."'
--Information from the Associated Press and Times files was used in this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or email@example.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media/
[Last modified December 27, 2005, 06:14:17]
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When Wikipedians run amok on orderly online encyclopedia