Wikis seem like a good idea: People collaborate in writing and editing encyclopedia articles for the benefit of everybody. They are a good idea, for the most part. And they’re a phenomenon that could only happen because of the Internet.
“A wiki … is a type of website that allows users to easily add, remove, or otherwise edit all content, very quickly and easily, sometimes without the need for registration. This ease of interaction and operation makes a wiki an effective tool for collaborative writing. … The term wiki is a shortened form of wiki wiki … which is from the native language of Hawaii (Hawaiian), where it is commonly used as an adjective to denote something ‘quick’ or ‘fast.’”
That’s the beginning of the Wikipedia entry for “wiki.” Wikipedia (http://www.en.wikipedia.org) is the largest wiki on the Net, with more than 1 million articles in English. Versions of the encyclopedia also exist in French, German, Spanish, and many other languages; each has its own content.
Though Wikipedia launched in 2001, much has happened over the past year that sheds light on the potential and problems of the burgeoning wiki phenomenon.
One of the criticisms of Wikipedia has been its accuracy because anybody can write, or change, its articles. In its December issue, the journal Nature published an article that tallied the errors in comparable articles in Wikipedia and the Rolls Royce of encyclopedias, Encyclopaedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com).
Here’s the surprising conclusion: The accuracy of Wikipedia was close to Britannica. The experts who reviewed the entries found what they considered to be 162 factual errors, omissions, or misleading statements in Wikipedia; they found 123 in Britannica.
Britannica fought back with a 20-page report (http://corporate.britannica.com/britannica_nature_response.pdf) it released in March, contending that the Nature analysis was “fatally flawed.” Among other things, Britannica accused the Nature experts of inaccurately citing inaccuracies.
The stakes are high. Wikipedia is free, while Britannica charges a subscription of $69.95 per year, relying on its credentialed scholarship and accuracy to justify its fees at a time when the Internet has dramatically reduced sales of the print encyclopedias (Britannica also markets DVD-ROM and CD-ROM versions).
Despite its good showing in the study and its increasing number of articles and viewers, Wikipedia has come under attack this past year on a number of fronts. Staff members of the U.S. Congress were caught changing Wikipedia entries for the politicos they worked for—for instance, they deleted references to campaign pledges the politicians failed to live up to.
You can read more about the brouhaha, naturally enough, at Wikipedia: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Requests_for_comment/United_States_Congress.
Politicians aren’t the only culprits. As just one example, in an article about podcasting, an innovator of the technology was accused of anonymously deleting references about others’ contributions to the new medium.
More than ego is involved. The anonymous author of an entry about John Seigenthaler Sr. (an assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960s and a former editorial page editor at USA TODAY) suggested that Seigenthaler may have been “directly involved” in the assassinations of both John and Bobby Kennedy.
Later, a man in Nashville, Tenn., admitted to writing the false biographical entry as a joke. Seigenthaler didn’t sue, but the man resigned from his job at a delivery company.
Wikipedia has since enacted some changes, prohibiting anonymous users from writing new articles. It still lets anybody anonymously edit existing articles, counting on users to fact-check.
Though Wikipedia is by far the largest and most popular wiki, it by no means is the only game in town. Digital Universe (http://www.digitaluniverse.net) is planning to launch Encyclopedia of the Earth, which it’s positioning as a Wikipedia alternative and “the PBS of the Web.” Still in the beta stage, it intends to become “the largest reliable public information resource in history.”
The service will have two tiers: 1) articles that are certified by subject-area experts through the involvement of universities, government agencies, nonprofit institutions, and companies and 2) articles that aren’t certified. Access to both will be free. The company plans to make money by selling e-mail, dial-up, and DSL accounts.
There are a number of wiki-type efforts already going strong that are just for technology geeks. Information Technology Toolbox, Inc. (http://www.ittoolbox.com) offers an information technology wiki as well as blogs and discussion groups.
TechRepublic (http://www.techrepublic.com), an offering of the online news and information service CNET, welcomes contributors of content as well, though it gets that content in a more traditional manner. It’s looking for industry experts “with something to say” and for “IT professionals with writing skills to contribute insightful information to our communities.”
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.