Your Take Roundup::Believers, Negativists Debate Wikipedia’s Trustworthiness

    by Mark Glaser
    April 20, 2006

    Are you enjoying Wikipedia Week yet at MediaShift? The more time I spend looking at Wikipedia, delving into its arcane rules and hearing from its various supporters and detractors, the more it feels like a religious sect. People have very strong views on the community-generated free online encyclopedia, ranging from calling it a revolution in collective wisdom to a place where “people who can’t write and who can’t edit and who can’t do research are running things.”

    I’m starting to think the people who edit Wikipedia are engaging in some kind of massive multiplayer game, where they speak their own language, gain power by playing the game the longest — with everyone fighting to be the arbiter of all human knowledge.

    So it’s not too surprising that my question to you — how much do you trust Wikipedia? — was answered with fervor on both sides. Right out of the gate, Mobius, who blogs at Orthodox Anarchist, sent a link to Jason Scott’s speech, The Great Failure of Wikipedia — required listening or reading for the Wikipedia negativist.


    “Ought to spike a giant nail in the collaborative coffin,” Mobius wrote.

    Not so fast, said David Gerard, a longtime Wikipedia administrator.

    “Mr. Scott really doesn’t get the idea of collaboration without ego as motivation,” wrote Gerard. “Fortunately, Wikipedia works in practice even if it can’t possibly work in theory. Note that the German Wikipedia is onto its third DVD edition so far — that’s real consumers paying 10 euros of real money for a DVDROM of text produced by wiki collaboration. Anyone claiming they’ve mathematically proved it can’t possibly work will need to come up with increasingly contrived redefinitions of ‘work.’”


    Gerard also has a solution for linking to particular Wikipedia entries that could degrade in quality — just link to one particular revision in the history that you trust. Activist and educator Phil Shapiro also came to the defense of Wikipedia, calling it a “major accomplishment of humankind.”

    “Wikipedia is worth linking to,” Shapiro wrote. “The Wikipedia has taught us what is possible. People who look askance at the Wikipedia are the same people who look askance at the possible. ‘Informal knowledge’ can sometimes even be stronger — more complete — than formal knowledge.”

    Todd Zeigler, who blogs at the Bivings Report, tells the negativists to stop complaining and start improving Wikipedia if they are tired of seeing errors.

    “Whatever you think of it, Wikipedia is hugely influential,” Zeigler writes. “It is the 17th most visited site on the Inernet and is the number one search result for lots of obscure/technical terms. I actually spend time helping to edit entries when I think they are inaccurate/need clarification. Everyone who cares about the concept of a collaborative encyclopedia should as well. Contributing is more effective than complaining about it. Wikipedia isn’t going anywhere. And it matters even if you think it is flawed.”

    Wikipedia Use Discouraged at Schools

    But still, the negativists pressed on, especially those in education who feel that Wikipedia is not welcome in schools, where students should be using more solid resource materials.

    “We are no longer allowed to use Wikipedia at our high school because some guy went on and got some totally bogus information from it,” wrote RifleAvenger. “I think that information should come from a certified valid source, otherwise it may be an opinion.”

    Dr. S Jones concurs, saying that Wikipedia is discouraged where he/she teaches.

    “The quality of the entries in Wikipedia has significantly deteriorated in the past couple of years,” Jones writes. “Students who use it have points deducted immediately for demonstrating gullibility and a lack of real curiosity. The quality of writing and research on Wikipedia is appalling.”

    Some of you felt that science articles on Wikipedia were more trustworthy than political or social entries, while others felt that Nature magazine’s comparison of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica showed Wikipedia to be less accurate.

    One Wikipedian FayssalF believes that no matter its current problems, Wikipedia could well improve in the future.

    “One can visit, as an example, the last debate at the Islamofascism discussion page and realize how stuff works,” FayssalF wrote. “There are many issues involved; copyrights, neutrality (NPOV) and accuracy. I believe that with the launch of Version 1.0 (see also stable versions’ project) things will get much better.”

    That’s possible, but for now, we’re stuck with an imperfect implementation that is far from being a neutral, accurate encyclopedia. I think Doug Lockwood summed up the situation perfectly.

    “Wikipedia is a remarkable source of information,” he wrote. “Do I trust it as a source for neutral information? Absolutely not. After all, how much can you trust any website? Everyone has an agenda, everyone has a viewpoint, and any source of information should be viewed with a critical eye. There is no such thing as a neutral information source.

    “Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to determine the validity of the information being presented. That does not remove the moral obligation of the author to provide the most valid information possible, of course. Certainly a web writer should only present links to sources they believe are worthwhile and support their stories or opinions. But the reader has to realize that anything they read was written from someone else’s viewpoint.”


    12 responses to “Your Take Roundup::Believers, Negativists Debate Wikipedia’s Trustworthiness”

    1. Zocky says:

      You seem to have fallen for a common misconception: one that there is a group of people with some common traits that runs Wikipedia. In reality, there are several nebular open-ended groups who run various processes on Wikipedia, but they consist of hugely different people who do things in many different ways.

      But the more important thing: even the most prolific editor hasn’t edited more than three or four percents of all Wikipedia articles. The few hundred people who write all those arcane rules and get involved in all those conflicts are mostly not the people who wrote the articles. Calculating the quality of articles from their views and behaviour is impossible.

    2. Philip Cronin says:

      Warren Boroson, whom you quote as calling Wikipedia a place where people who cant write and who cant edit and who cant do research are running things published a follow up column in which he wrote: “I have received a ton of e-mails about my denunciation of Wikipedia…. Clifford from London scored a palpable hit. I criticized Wikipedia for not providing enough information on mutual funds, but he pointed out that the Encyclopedia Britannica is a far worse offender in this regard…. Having done more reading, I concede that I went too far. There are good articles in Wikipedia.” See the talk page of his Wikipedia profile for a link to the full article.

    3. Firstly, I’d like to say how much I’ve enjoyed Mark’s well informed and insightful comments on Wikipedia. He’s about as neutral a commentator on our project as I’ve ever seen – he criticises it’s failings and praises it’s good points! That is the sort of comment I like about Wikipedia because it’s actually useful.

      I agree with Zocky that the few hundred people who write all those arcane rules and get involved in all those conflicts are mostly not the people who wrote the articles. However, by the same token the rules that are written generally don’t apply to those who are solid contributors to Wikipedia.


    4. Carl says:

      I find this an interesting and fruitful topic for discussion. Thanks for initiating Wikipedia week.

      I find it strange the many people who believe in democracy don’t believe that good results can come from Wikipedia. One can argue that authoring or modifying articles is simply an engaged and participatory form of voting for an idea. People who find them acceptable leave them unchanged. Those that find them unacceptable modify them. Eventually, they converge to something a vast majority can accept.

      Analogies are always suspect, but I would also argue that Wikipedia is a lot like science. Theories (articles) are posited and tested for acceptance. Those that aren’t accepted are thrown out, and others proposed. Eventually the results converge to something that stands the test of time and audience. The only difference is that testing for acceptance in the Wikipedia case is a subjective rather than objective test. But as with the voting argument above, it does tend to converge. If it doesn’t, then the article probably isn’t one where there is a single accepted truth.

      I’ll conclude with a final thought. Everyone is an expert on something, even if it is simply what they’ve experienced in their lives. Wikipedia represents our opportunity to create a true Encyclopedia Galactica that represents the combined knowledge of all rather than a select few experts by education, training, or status. While it may take years, decades, or centuries to converge, it is at least worth trying. After all, what do we have to lose?

      Thank you again for a thought-provoking discussion.


    5. Blissyu2 says:

      Isn’t it funny to see the pro-Wikipedia side all talk in unison? Doesn’t it remind you of the borg in Star Trek? “We are the borg. Resistence is futile. You will be assimilated”. This sounds awfully much like how Wikipedia operate. They all speak with one voice, and if you disagree, then they will try to “re-train” you so that you do agree. If you cannot be retrained, then they will “kill” you, in this case with a ban, perhaps backed up by the farcical “Arbitration Committee”, a body which acts as the ultimate authority and as a pseudo-legal operation, yet has no rules whatsoever to govern what they do or how they do it. What would law courts be like if the person who makes a complaint can end up being the one punished, and when people who appear as witnesses can even end up banned? This is worse than the worst forms of government in the world, or indeed in human history. To see something similar, we have to delve deep in to the heart of fiction.

      We can all remember what a totalitarian government is like. Critics would be killed or re-trained. Until there is no more criticism. “There is no cabal”, says Wikipedia. “If you think that there is a cabal, then it will look like there is”. Yet in the same breath they all speak with one voice, and there is severe secrecy within Wikipedia. “It is a common misconception” they will tell us. “Wikipedia really, secretly, is transparent. You just can’t see it”. Ri-i-ight.

      So where is the transparency when an Arbitration Committee is “elected” with 4 of the positions being “appointed” against community wishes? Where is the transparency when hated administrators are “appointed” as clerks, new positions to act as pseudo-arbitrators, just for a place for people in the cabal to have more weight? Where is the transparency?

      And what about consensus? They changed “Votes for deletion” to “Articles for deletion” so that you would know that your voice means nothing. “Its the argument that matters”, they will tell you. So if an article is nominated for deletion yet nobody wants it deleted, it can be deleted anyway, because of “consensus”. And when 90% of people want userboxes to stay, they can be deleted anyway because of “consensus”.

      “I strongly encourage you to delete political userboxes”, says Jimbo. “I think that all critic websites are either hoaxes or whingeing banned users”, says Jimbo. And any articles written about critics are filled to the brim with bashings of them. “Ashida Kim *IS* a crack pot”, says Wikipedia, “Bullshido.net says so”. Yet Bullshido.net is not a reliable source, something which Wikipedia has admitted, when it added Bullshido.net to the spam blacklist. “Daniel Brandt is a privacy activist”, Wikipedia insists. Yet everywhere he has said he is an accountability activist, and only people bashing him have called him a privacy activist, in order to make him look like a hypocrite. “Daniel Brandt is not an authority on Daniel Brandt”, they say, “Because he is a crack pot”.

      You will be assimilated. Resistence is futile. Try to fight us, and we will call you a crack pot, get you banned, smear your name, and get everyone to turn on you. Join us. Become like us.

      Welcome to the borg. Welcome to Wikipedia.

    6. mobius says:

      hey don’t get me wrong — i love wikipedia; i’m a regular contributor, i rely upon it as a resource, i sing its praises to infidel non-believers, and i sometimes get lost in it for hours, learning about things like, i dunno, persian history. the remark about “the collaborative coffin” was not exemplary of my actual position, but rather a remark about the damage scott’s speech may have on the case for online collaboration.

    7. Well, I see my speech got linked to, so I found this little discussion going on. Let me clarify a few things in a short, easy-to-read paragraph or two.

      David Gerard is pulling a magic trick when he points to the success of the English Wikipedia by describing the German Wikipedia. They are two entirely different entities that happen to use the same software and have the same parent organization. The German Wikipedia requires user accounts and captchas to function; and is much more hard-line about implementation of policy and who gets to determine what. As a result, it has been a success. These two Wikipedias are not the same thing and shame on him for trying to act like they are.

      Second, I never said anywhere that I was against collaboration or against Wikipedia. I am against the approach currently taken in the implementation and engineering of policies, all of which are being changed, but at great cost in energy and time, factors people like David Gerard and Ta Bu Shi Da Yu don’t really care about, since the ends justify the means for them. There are tons, thousands of collaborative environments out there that do just fine; heck, I’m working on one (Windows XP) and connecting through another (my FreeBSD box) to you (a message base). I even did a documentary about some (www.bbsdocumentary.com). To call my criticisms of the current implementation of Wikipedia a nail in the coffin of collaboration is off as well, although I appreciate Mobius’ good will in mentioning me.

      So, in summary: hurrah to collaboration, hurrah to information, boo to arcane politics, boo to endless energy-wasting conflict.

    8. maru dubshinki says:


      Isn’t it funny to see the 2+2=4 side all talk in unison? Doesn’t it remind you of the borg in Star Trek? “We are the borg. Resistence is futile. You will be assimilated”. This sounds awfully much like how mathematicians operate. They all speak with one voice, and if you disagree, then they will try to “re-train” you so that you do agree.

      “They changed “Votes for deletion” to “Articles for deletion” so that you would know that your voice means nothing.”

      No… we changed it because Ed Poor deleted VFD, and we were hoping AFD would sound better and not give people the mistaken impression that Wikipedia is a democracy. If Wikipedia was a democracy, no doubt you would be assailing us for thinking that voting can determine the NPOV-ness or truth or something.

    9. nat square says:

      If you discover a topic through a minor source, ie, a small town newspaper or a notice board at the laundry mat, and do further information on this topic that now consumes your interest, do you go back to your initial source and say, ‘there are some flaws in the information I first discovered in this forum’?

      It is what it is.

    10. Samuel Browning says:

      “And any articles written about critics are filled to the brim with bashings of them. “Ashida Kim *IS* a crack pot”, says Wikipedia, “Bullshido.net says so”. Yet Bullshido.net is not a reliable source, something which Wikipedia has admitted, when it added Bullshido.net to the spam blacklist.”

      There is a difference between posts on Bullshido.net which anyone can make, and approved articles which are often featured on Bullshido.com I would encourage anyone who has questions about Mr. Ashida Kim, whose mail order black belt mill we exposed to visit Bullshido.com, follow the links to our article on this individual and then make up their own minds concerning Bullshido’s reliability.

      Samuel Browning
      Staff Member
      Bullshido.net and com

    11. Sara says:

      Funny that I should come across this blog and most appropriate, as all my problems on wikipedia derive from FayssalF’s thoughtless meddling into my edits of articles that I know to be inaccurate, and, in some cases, blatantly untrue. Fayssalf continually reverted my sourced edits because there was a use that used several accounts who continually imposed his mythological “preferences” and presented them as “consensus.” I asked, in earnest, FayssalF to review the edits before using his administrative tools, but he refused. His excact words were, ” I am not here to read the material. I am here to impose the rules.” FayssalF is the perfect embodiment of why wikipedia cannot serve as an encyclopedia and why it only serves the needs of fascistic and rather obsessive internet users. FayssslF simply revels in wikipedia because he is able to impose his administrative weight. He does not pay attention to the material, which is what an encyclopedia is about. It is not about how internet users behave but rather about knowledge as ooposed to myth, or nonsense, or rubbish. FayssalF also got involved at the behest of a “buddy” of his. Essentially, he used his administrative tools to silence me, and to perpetuate the lies that his “buddies” favor. The articles that I opposed, as they stand, are protected, so that no one can edit them, and of course, absurdly mythological and inaccurate. Wikipedia only undermines knowledge, and I truly believe it is quite possibly the scariest and worst thing that has emerged from the internet.

    12. Josh Wentworth says:

      And check it out: http://www.techemperor.com/2010/06/01/wikipedia-takes-on-bullshido/

      Wikipedia seems not to have learned anything from the previous scandals and just waged an eventually successful campaign to delete the Bullshido.net entry from Wikipedia. Despite dozens of other Wikipedia entries which referenced the Bullshido.net one.

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