The New Review: Discover: THE NETWORKER: Wikipedia isn't perfect, but its model is sound
(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The row over Channel 4's revelations that people using government computers have been making questionable edits to Wikipedia pages is intriguing. It would of course be scandalous if it transpired that officials within the UK government or police service had conspired to tamper with Wikipedia pages on the killings of Jean Charles de Menezes, Damilola Taylor and Lee Rigby. But that's not what the Channel 4 report was able to establish: all it claimed was that some person or persons unknown, using computers with IP addresses within the .gov.uk domain, had edited the relevant Wikipedia pages.
On the Menezes page, for example, this text was added to the entry: "There has been some public backlash against Menezes, with British tabloid newspaper in particular protesting that he has received more publicity than any of the 52 people who died in the bombings. 'Anti-war' groups who champion Menezes case, ignore the fate of the victims of the bombings, other then to 'understand' why the attacks occurred due to the UK's role in Iraq." Another edit cast doubt on the dead man's immigration status.
Members of Menezes's family are understandably outraged by this kind of tampering and the ensuing hoo-ha has apparently stirred the government into devising a code of conduct for public officials in dealing with Wikipedia entries. That's good news, because this isn't the first time that official malpractice has been detected. Last April, for example, the BBC reported that the phrase "all Muslims are terrorists" was added to a page about veils and that another edit deleted text in Cherie Blair's entry about the flat-buying scandal that made headlines in 2002. And the Liverpool Echo discovered that insults had been added to the entry for the Hillsborough disaster.
These mini-scandals are manna from Heaven for those in the media and elsewhere who find the Wikipedia concept alarming or disruptive. The idea that any Tom, Dick or Harriet could edit an encyclopaedia entry, and that the resulting whole would turn into an invaluable global resource, still seems incredible to some people. And the problem with these periodic media storms about discovered abuses is that they obscure an important truth about Wikipedia, namely that the way it operates has significant lessons for us all.
How come? Basically because Wikipedia embodies a new approach to the creation, dissemination and curation of knowledge in a networked world. The most striking thing about this approach is that it is completely open: the reason Channel 4 was able to uncover what it reported is that the history of every single edit to a Wikipedia is freely available, right back to the first incarnation of the page. So anyone with the time and inclination can see the evolution and transformation of the page over its entire lifetime. Equally, anyone who messes with a page has real difficulty covering their tracks. Likewise, every Wikipedia page has a discussion page associated with it, which allows people to explain or justify changes that they have made.
Wikipedia is a typical product of the open internet, in that it started with a few simple principles and evolved a fascinating governance structure to deal with problems as they arose. It recognised early on that there would be legitimate disagreements about some subjects and that eventually corporations and other powerful entities would try to subvert or corrupt it.
As these challenges arose, Wikipedia's editors and volunteers developed procedures, norms and rules for addressing them. These included software for detecting and remedying vandalism, for example, and processes such as the "three-revert" rule. This says that an editor should not undo someone else's edits to a page more than three times in one day, after which disagreements are put to formal or informal mediation or a warning is placed on the page alerting readers that there is controversy about the topic. Some perennially disputed pages, for example the one on George W Bush, are locked down. And so on.
In trying to figure out how to run itself, Wikipedia has therefore been grappling with the problems that will increasingly bug us in the future. In a comprehensively networked world, opinions and information will be super-abundant, the authority of older, print-based quality control and verification systems will be eroded and information resources will be intrinsically malleable. In such a cacophonous world, how will we know what is reliable and true? How will we deal with disagreements and disputes about knowledge? How will we sort out digital wheat from digital chaff? Wikipedia may be imperfect (what isn't?) but at the moment it's the only model we have for addressing these problems.
TRIBUTE The shrine to Jean Charles de Menezes, near where he was shot dead by the police in 2005. Photograph by Graeme Robertson
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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