The Wicked-Pedia

It's hardly surprising. The only safe way to treat the Wikipedia, and the Internet more generally, is as propaganda, because the velocity of the information has reduced civil debate to uncivil sabotage.

David DeJean, Contributor

December 5, 2005

3 Min Read

The blogosphere is roiled over problems with the Wikipedia, where the ideal that letting anybody write or edit anything will increase the amount of truth in the world collected more than a little tarnish last week.

It's hardly surprising. The only safe way to treat the Wikipedia, and the Internet more generally, is as propaganda, because the velocity of the information has reduced civil debate to uncivil sabotage.Two things happened last week: John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist and former aide to Robert Kennedy, lambasted the Wikipedia in an op-ed piece in USAToday for hosting an article that implied he had a role in the assassinations of Robert and John Kennedy. And Adam Curry, the former MTV VJ and podcasting innovator, was outed for anonymously editing out references to the pioneering work of others in the article on podcasting. In response the Wikipedia moved to limit the ability to post new articles only to registered members.

These are really tempests in teapots, not all that important in themselves, but they point out how important the Wikipedia, and the Internet more generally, have become in the information economy. It's interesting that Siegenthaler chose to publish his complaint in a newspaper, because most of the people who would read the Wikipedia article couldn't find the op-ed page of USAToday with both hands. And vice versa.

The Curry affair is closer to the bone of the Wikipedia's problem: what my friend Charlie Cooper at CNET is calling "epistomological revisionism" (wish I'd thought of that). Coop's point is that the Wikipedia presents a model of competing versions of the truth. I would disagree. I think the competition is between interest and disinterest. A couple of years ago, I saw a presentation on a project put together by a research group at IBM that explored ways of producing visual representations of computer data. One of diagrams tracked the revisions to an active Wikipedia article. As I remember, it was the article on abortion, so you can imagine the kind of war of words that was going on. Big chunks of content would be lobbed into the article like hand grenades, then cut out again, and restored, and modified, and eviscerated, and put back, and on and on. It was my impression that the battle wasn't between two opposing sides -- "abortion is bad" vs. "abortion is good" -- but between what Coop would call an epistemological position, a statement of passionate belief, and an attempt to define neutral fact -- between "abortion is bad" and "abortion is". That is, between propaganda and truth. The truth is, information is no more credible than its source, and the Wikipedia, and the Internet more generally, is not a particularly high-grade source of Truth with a capital T because its sources are essentially unknowable. The information is always validated (or invalidated) by its source, and the source in turn is validated (or invalidated) by a constellation of cultural references that swirls around in each of our heads. This problem has been debated a lot since bloggers replaced conservative talk-radio hosts as the second-hottest class of celebrities (always excepting Victoria's Secret models). There's a generational effect, I think: older people whose cultural constellations include a lot of experience with print media might claim the truth is harder to find nowadays, and younger people whose cultural constellations are Web-based might say the opposite. The truth is, neither newspapers nor the Wikipedia have anything like a corner on the truth, and if you think they do, you need to get your propaganda filter cleaned and checked right away. But one thing is obvious: the velocity of the process has increased factorially. Siegenthaler and Curry weren't responding to books or magazine articles published months ago. The lag time has dropped to days or, in the case of Wikipedia edits, even minutes. This velocity of the information has become its most important attribute, and it has reduced civil debate to uncivil sabotage. That doesn't bode well for the future success of the wiki as an information medium.

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