Wikipedia and other online databases provide a soupy morass of
information, but where can we find the variety of views that leads to
April 13, 2006
"Just who would want to vandalise an entry on cheese?" wonders Skip, a
Wikipedia administrator. Watching the online encyclopaedia's raw
submission queue in real time can be unnerving. The online reference
site that anyone can edit is defaced 20 times a minute and cheese, it
seems, is one of the most popular targets for creative embellishment.
In the administrator's console, another fresh article - Wikipedia has
more than a million now - scrolls past: "James is my fren," it reads
in its entirety.
Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica,
has described Wikipedia as "a game without consequences". BBC Radio
1's afternoon DJs recently took turns to deface each other's entries
live on air. MPs have joined in, too. But as Skip begins to guide me
through the arcane and often Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Wikipedia,
vandalism starts to look like the least of its problems.
Skip isn't his real name or his Wikipedia identity. It's a pseudonym
the 30-year-old Silicon Valley IT professional uses as he documents
the inner machinations of the project, along with a dozen other
Wikipedia administrators, on a site called WikiTruth (
Wikipedia, endlessly replicated on the web, is one example of a glut
of hazy information, the consequences of which we have barely begun to
explore, that the internet has made endlessly available. Is Wikipedia
really the best the net can offer - and if it isn't, where should we
be looking for the answers?
While plenty of people nurse resentments against Wikipedia, having
failed to win a consensus for their views, Skip's colleagues at
WikiTruth have a different motivation. Branding themselves the true
keepers of the flame, they argue Wikipedia's wounds are self-inflicted
When the business author Nicholas Carr identified last October a
typically banal Wikipedia entry ( http://tinyurl.com/8mr5x ), he
prompted a rare admission. Wikipedia's co-founder and site owner Jimmy
Wales agreed, calling the examples Carr cited "horrific crap". Yet
these articles were mature, Carr pointed out, and had been edited
hundreds of times. Might the mass participation be hurting, not
This gradual deterioration afflicts any utopian online space, and Skip
ruefully notes even the best Wikipedia work - its catalogue of
featured articles of the week - degenerates once out of the spotlight.
That isn't true, of course, of printed work such as Britannica's
entries. But the encyclopaedia company has been hit hard, first by the
arrival of CD-Rom-based rivals such as Microsoft's Encarta in 1993,
and then the net. In 1996 it laid off its door-to-door sales staff. In
1999 it launched a website. The rise of Wikipedia as an "online
encyclopaedia" has added to the pressure.
Now, though, Britannica has been taking the offensive. The company
strongly rebutted a study conducted by journalists at Nature magazine
that compared Wikipedia favourably to Britannica, and which was
accompanied by an editorial plea for the scientific community to
contribute to the project. The study blind-tested extracts from each
site with experts, and was widely reported as showing them to be of
comparable quality. "It should have said 31% less reliable and worse
written," McHenry says of the Nature study. Britannica, meanwhile,
says the study was biased towards Wikipedia. "It's offensive to lump
these gross offences against publishing with a typo in Britannica,"
says its executive editor Theodore Pappas.
Britannica said Nature cited passages not in the encyclopedia and
criticised it for refusing to publish the referees' reports. Nature
says it stands by its report and can't release the full reports for
Nature's news editor Jim Giles denies the journal had identified
itself closely in the Wikipedia camp. "Each has its merits," he says.
"In our editorial, we simply argued that Wikipedia has potential and
scientists can help realise that potential."
Britannica's president Jorge Cauz identifies a homogeneity online he
finds unsettling. "Internet discourse has the ability to negate the
diversity of voices, and no one can differentiate between truth and
myth," he says.
"It's a hall of mirrors," agrees Michael Gorman, the Briton who is
president of the American Library Association (ALA), "and it's very
But for participants, the appeal fades, notes Skip. Some of
Wikipedia's most valued contributors have left in the past year, with
two waves of departures in recent months, he says. Former
administrators speak of burnout, brought on by bureaucratic warfare.
Now Wikipedia faces a fork. If it tightens its open approach, it risks
losing its most active participants, for whom Wikipedia is a utopian
Away from the hurly-burly of Wikipedia, even current events can seem
oddly remote and processed once they are viewed online. Google News,
for example, employs computer algorithms similar to those used in spam
filters to identify and present the news. In looking for similarities,
the news is homogenised and breaking stories fail to rise to
For the veteran researcher Daniel Brandt, who taught CIA whistleblower
Philip Agee how to use computers, much of what a human editor provides
is lost. "What's gone is any sense of 'a scoop' or 'an important
development' or 'new information that puts a new slant on an ongoing
story'. There's no authority, no perspective and no sense of
historical continuity. It's a dumbing-down process," says the
Google News had a serendipity now missing, mourns the veteran blogger
Jorn Barger. When it appeared in 2002, "the top article might come
from anywhere in the world or in small-town America but people
complained, I guess, that unwelcome perspectives were getting too much
prominence and Google tweaked the algorithm," Barger wrote last year.
How then are we coping with this glut of unreliable information? Some
are doing better than others, suggests Will Davies, a senior fellow at
the Institute of Public Policy Research.
For Davies, the accumulation of information is no substitute for
critical thinking and the problem is it begins to provide its own
"It's a false supposition we can endlessly delay having to interpret
and judge things by stacking more and more bits of data in front of
us," he says. "That data is a comfort blanket in a way - we all do
this. People are becoming addicted to getting more information all the
time. You can see it when they get out their BlackBerrys as soon as
they've stepped off a plane."
For the former journalist and author Dan Gillmor, this aggregation of
information technology enables is synonymous with wisdom. "My readers
by definition know more than me," he said recently. "They have facts
we don't know."
But is the widespread availability of technology generating such
wisdom or even improving our learning? For the ALA's Gorman, who in
the 1990s wrote for librarians an influential guide to evaluating
technology trends, such claims are risible. "No one would tell you a
student using Google today is producing work as good as they were 20
years ago using printed sources. Despite these amazing technical
breakthroughs, these technologies haven't added to human wellbeing."
Davies agrees. "It hasn't made us addicted to education," he notes.
Nor do the skills required to aggregate information quickly and
multitask between information streams encourage understanding.
Byproducts of businesses
And while technology enthusiasts celebrate the destruction of old
industries, Gorman warns technology has failed to create economic
conditions to take their place. Quality information costs money to
edit but the best online collections of data - in what is sometimes
called the "deep web" - are byproducts of successful print businesses.
Lose these, he suggests, and we're left with the banality of Google
and Wikipedia. Davies is more optimistic. People will return to
traditional publishers as they see the consequences of the wiki
approach, he thinks, and there will be an audience for both.
But supposing these businesses sur-vive. Will the world be able to
read them? Google's relationships with publishers are fraught - its
Print project is the subject of lawsuits - but this dispute may be of
less lasting significance than we think.
In the US in the 1980s, a movement was born to bring the best of these
expensive information collections to the public, free at the point of
delivery. This movement predated the public internet and may yet
transform it beyond recognition. Libraries began to negotiate
collectively for access to databases, which their copyright holders
today would never let the public view through Google. The members of
San Francisco's Public Library, for example, can access the full
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Lexis Nexis and more than 70 databases from
any browser, simply by entering their library card number.
It hasn't been easy, points out Susan Hildreth, the city's former
chief librarian and now California State Librarian. The state's sheer
size steers some database owners to making deals with smaller regional
libraries. But it's not difficult to imagine churches or community
groups taking advantage of such a model. It's been a success and real
library usage has increased, she says.
For Davies, we can be proud we have made a success of the technology
infrastructure - laying down the pipes - but we have neglected the
social institutions necessary to make them work. Obstacles remain to
bringing the successful collective licensing model to the UK. It costs
money and Gorman notes funding for US libraries is higher than for
Britain's impoverished public services. And the utopian dreams of what
Carr calls the "cult of the amateur" die hard.
"It's hard to tell someone who's devoting 40 hours a week to Wikipedia
that it's going to fail," says Skip. "But it will."
He returns to his console. Somewhere in cyberspace, a Wikipedia editor
is correcting the encyclopaedia's article for cheese.
Andrew Orlowski is San Francisco bureau chief for The Register
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