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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