Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them

150px-Wikipedia-logoUse Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not a source of them: I am a fan of John Seigenthaler Sr. He is a great man and a legend to many (including me) here in Nashville. I feel sick that a man who has done so many great things was heinously libeled in a Wikipedia entry.

What happened to Mr. Seigenthaler is unfortunate, and if it happend to me and I had access to the platform, I also would use USA Today to go after low-lifes who would assasinate my character. John Seigenthaler has never been a back-down sort of guy. And after a story in Sunday’s News York Times, he will become poster victim for everyone who has experienced the darkside potential of Wikipedia.

But Wikipedia is not the problem. Something resembling accuracy will typically win-out in a Wikipedia war. It’s like watching sausage being made, but there is typically some wisdom in the crowds who work on entries. The debate that goes on in the creation and development of a Wikipedia post is an amazing thing to watch. I highly recomend John Udell’s screencast, “Heavy metal umlaut: the movie,” as a fun way to observe this process.

The problem is how people use Wikipedia. You learned the key to using Wikipedia before kindegarten, but you’ve forgotten it. I mean, really: How many times did your parents tell you, “Don’t believe everything that you read or hear!” Wikipedia, friends, is what they were talking about.

I agree with Dave Winer (who has been on the victim of lots of Wikipedia malicioius graffitists and axe-grinders), who wrote yesterday, “the bigger problem is that Wikipedia is so often considered authoritative. That must stop now, surely. Every fact in there must be considered partisan, written by someone with a confict of interest”

I’ll be even more blunt: You’re crazy if you take what you read in Wikipedia at face value. Don’t do that with what you read anywhere. Don’t do it with newspapers or magazines. But especially don’t do it with a personal medium like blogging (especially not this one) or a collaborative one like Wikipedia.

Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts, not as a source of facts. People who make Wikipedia entries often have personal (and passionate) points-of-view on the topic that taint their contributions with a clear bias. If it’s a tech-oriented or political topic, this often leads to months-long feuds and flames. Accuracy often takes months (if ever) to achieve and truth can have many sides.

Despite those caveats regarding how it should be used and scrutinized, I’m committed to the radically-opened Wikipedia model — especially, with certain filtering and judgement tools that will no-doubt evolve. I will be writing on this topic much more in the coming weeks, I feel certain. Along with a dozen or so others, I spent a couple years of my life pondering the dynamics of trust online in the context of collaborative knowledge sharing. There are ways to address the problems. Trust me. (Or don’t.)

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  • Hugo E. Martin

    I like your term “Use Wikipedia as a gateway to facts ..”

    My print world experience:
    I have four generation of serious medical books – if i read in my frist set of books from Thieme, it seems like that todays human being have been created lately – from time to time I look up my old Brockhaus from 1837 and have fun.

    My real life experience:
    Our politian, MSM a.o. are neither source nor gateway to fact – to me they behave more like gatekeeper to facts (and even swing the Patriot act like a cudgel)

    And finally I like:
    Wikipedia: Errors in the Encyclopædia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Errors_in_the_Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica_that_have_been_corrected_in_Wikipedia

    which would the EB to correct quite some years!

  • Gerard

    There is a BOG difference between Britannica’s errors of fact (dates, places, etc.) and outright character assassination that can be found on Wikipedia. I am disturbed by all those who claim that errors in Wikipedia are “quickly fixed,” by the army of volunteers. That may be true of high-profile public figures whose entries are read daily. The big problem on Wikipedia is with the scores of entries on lesser-known figures who don’t have the “Wikipedia army,” looking out for their posts. 99.9% of the volunteers wouldn’t know a fake biography from a real one with some of these lesser-known figures. Wikipedia’s anything-goes brand of “scholarship” is irresponsible and should not be praised in the name of “freedom” or anything else.

  • Paul

    Academics from the Association of Internet Researchers have been bouncing Wikipedia around on a list-serv today: some saying that it should never be allowed as a quoted source in a college paper…and others who see it as a learning opportunity to better define what reliable sources look like. I would propose encouraging collegians to become part of that ‘source’ information by contributing responsibly and accurately to wikipedia. And, keep wikipedia open and dynamic and alive. That is the very nature of the delivery system!

  • rex

    I suggest that collegians are at a level where, if they want to get an “A”, they shouldn’t be sourcing from any encyclopedia, much less Wikipedia. Do you let student’s source “Cliff’s Notes” or “Chemistry for Dummies”? How hard is it to click through to the “external links” at the bottom of almost any Wikipedia entry and go deeper into the topic’s sources?

  • phil jones

    I think you’re on the right track here. The great thing about wikipedia is that it *should* teach people that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge. But this raises an interesting question about the Seigenthaler story.

    For all we know, people are *already* sensibly discounting wikipedia’s authority. Do we have any evidence that anyone did take the Seigenthaler errors seriously or that he was harmed by it?

  • pwb

    I think most of us stopped quoting encyclopedias in third grade. As Rex notes, encyclopedias have always been gateways to facts. I’m glad Rex didn’t limit his remarks to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a micro-cosm of the web with infinitley more reliability.

  • Bob

    Wikipedia is wonderful resource: I use it to encourage journalism undergraduates to always check their facts, have multiple sources of information, etc…. I’ve used Jon Udell’s Heavy Metal Umlaut screencast to demonstrate why.

    I wonder whether Wikipedia might be therapeutic — or just the opposite — for a certain category of easily-amused creative obsessive-compulsives with attention deficit disorder and/or very strange axes to grind. (Except for the axe part, I may have just described myself.)