December 5, 2005

Wacky Wikis

The New York Times ran an interesting article on Wikipedia yesterday with the following disturbing anecdote:
According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, John Seigenthaler Sr. is 78 years old and the former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville. But is that information, or anything else in Mr. Seigenthaler's biography, true?

The question arises because Mr. Seigenthaler recently read about himself on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that he "was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John and his brother Bobby."
A lot of people are worried about Wikipedia's capacity for spreading misinformation, either by someone acting intentionally, as is likely in this case, or unintentionally. It's certainly a reasonable fear, but a bit excessive. The thing is, even a news source we assume is trustworthy (well, most of us, anyway) like the New York Times can't be held in absolute trust; it has periodic inaccuracies, omissions and large gaps in what is covered.

For instance, the article on Mr. Seigenthaler makes him seem like a pretty unremarkable man--the two things NYT highlights are his age and his involvement with some smallish newspaper. But if you read his Wikipedia biography (which I assume has been fact-checked, probably even by Mr. Seigenthaler himself), you find out that he's possibly one of the most interesting guys you've never heard anything about. You wouldn't know that from the Times.

But the open-source nature of Wikipedia (which is actually a lot less open source than, say, a web of conversation-based gossip) does demand some guidelines. Here's the bare bones of some rules I can think of (and a fuller list is here:

1. Read primarily for the links.

2. Read for general interest.

3. Don't read in order to form a personal view of something. Don't base an opinion of the merits of stem-cell research based on a Wikipedia article, for instance.

4. Read to familiarize yourself with the names and events of a topic you're working on.

5. The "what links here" function on the left-hand sidebar is nice, as is the history of edits.

6. Just because Wikipedia is online does not mean common sense is useless. Use common sense, just like anything else.

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