How much faith do we put in the knowledge communities that talk to us everyday? In today’s world of “extreme media”, we are bombarded with television, radio, newspapers, magazines and increasingly - the jungle of the World Wide Web.
It is fair to say that most of us gain our news and information about the world from a variety of sources, and no one is immune from the influence of the Internet. Increasingly, we are forced to question the “truth” behind the information we are presented with. The recent controversy over the WikiScanner and our own Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet and NSW Premier’s Office has shone some light on this vexed problem.
Since Wired News first broke the story last week there has been a plethora of items in the popular media regarding Wikipedia, the famed “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. Never having been a site to shy away from controversy, this is hardly a new occurrence. Most people familiar with the Internet would have used Wikipedia to look up a topic, and still more would have noticed that when you google almost any subject, its Wikipedia page appears towards the top of the list.
The development of the WikiScanner (which traces the origin of the person editing pages) has highlighted that organisations such as the CIA, and the Vatican have “fixed” their entires; and recently our own Defence department, Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet and NSW Premier’s Officer have been shown to have edited information on the site.
A growing number of people, especially those under 25, use Wikipedia as their first port of call for information. This makes the “self-editing” that the Prime Minister’s staffers engaged in a highly questionable practice. Unlike a blog, personal webpage or MySpace entry, millions of people worldwide hold Wikipedia to be a neutral and truthful information source. The site itself (which went live in 2001) has always been aware of this issue, and has held fast to its editorial policy of a “neutral point of view”, requiring all points of view on an issue to be treated equally.
So what exactly is going on in the inner workings of Wikipedia?
Unlike other sources of popular information, Wikipedia has no author. Instead, it relies on a knowledge community: editors coming together from around the world to share their expertise, research and abilities in the interests of creating a repository of knowledge that anyone can access and contribute to - a noble goal in anyone’s mind.
No single entry is created by a single person. Every topic in the jungle of ideas is collaboratively edited, reshaped, added to, changed and perfected incessantly. But many cooks do not spoil the broth - instead they ensure that all possible opinions and views are heard, neutrality is maintained, and developments are added correctly. Such collaboration occurs on the site’s Talk Pages (discussion boards), which are attached to every entry. Here, editors communicate their ideas, what they have changed in the entry and debate the merits of arguments, phrasing, grammar and structure.
While many commentators have claimed that not having an attributable author allows people to say anything they like, this is not entirely the case. It is true, vandals and troublemakers exist. However they are easily identified and their edits quickly reversed. Regular Wikipedia users can be identified by their “log-in” name and account, which is free and instantly obtained. This name becomes the user’s identity in Wikipedia. While it is possible to edit without a log-in name (which I would argue is a flaw in the system), those who do are considered “anons” (anonymous) by community members, and their edits are trusted less and reviewed more carefully
Through strong social structures all Wikipedia community members are identifiable, by their log-in name and User Page (like a personal web-page). Wikipedia has a strong internal “praise-shame” economy, where the only currency users have is the quality of their participation. Problem users are quickly stomped on by one of the five million registered English Wikipedia users, and positive contributors are welcomed and befriended.
While the everyday reader might have no idea who wrote the page, a Wiki-citizen could easily trace the author(s) and tell you whether they were trustworthy or not. Such internal community structures ensure that “hackers” from the CIA or Defence department are not going to go un-noticed for very long.
Wikipedia is not perfect, but nor is it fatally flawed as others have condemned it to be. Rather, it is an incredibly useful and amazing website (rated by Alexa in the top ten websites visited for both Australia and the world) with over one million entries in the English version alone.
Do you believe everything you see on the news or read in the paper? More importantly, do you believe everything you read on the Internet? Probably not. No information is without prior intent, and none exists separated from a knowledge community. Ultimately though, I’d argue that Wikipedia’s knowledge community is probably more organised and careful about the information it produces than many others, and is committed to the “information cause” - after all, the many, many hours they put in are for free.