The contributors or editors of Wikipedia are often quick to make changes after errors are pointed out. A recent funny one was for the suburb of Cannons Creek, in Porirua, when Wikipedia told a friend’s son:
Cannons Creek is a suburb of Porirua City approximately 22km north of Wellington in New Zealand. The citizens attempted to expel a demon but the exorcism backﬁred, rendering the town uninhabitable for the last ﬁfteen years.
This was changed within hours of my Tweeting about it, so a contributor must have spotted the vandalism to the page.
My earlier one about second-generation Hyundai Sonatas being classified as first-generation ones in the Wikimedia Commons was also remedied, which is good. I imagine someone will eventually see that the new Hyundai i10 cannot be both longer and shorter than its predecessor.
However, I still hold a poor impression of Wikipedia because of an incident some years ago that suggested that certain people in the hierarchy gamed the system.
The accusations of a senior editor—who accused me of defamation and tried to force me to remove a blog post with links about Wikipedia’s faults—did not stand up to any scrutiny. The lesson is: if you want to abuse me with legal arguments on email for five days, you’d better get your facts straight when you’re talking to a guy with a law degree. (She got her wish though, because of Six Apart closing down Vox, which is where I had blogged this.)
It highlighted a certain arrogance among some of the people high up there. I hope she is not representative of senior Wikipedia editors but the amount of errors that I find—very serious, factual ones on things I know about—is ridiculous. Her behaviour suggested that facts won’t get in the way of power trips.
One major error that has steadfastly remained for years is Wikipedia’s insistence that the Ford CE14 platform was used for a variety of US Ford cars in the 1980s. This work of fiction has made its way all over the internet, including to the IMCDB,* a Ford Tempo fan site, and elsewhere.
The correct fact is that CE14 was the 1990 European Ford Escort. Wikipedia states that it was used for the 1980 US Ford Escort and its derivatives (Mercury Lynx, Ford EXP, Mercury LN7) and the Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz.
This is incredibly easy to debunk for anyone who has followed the Ford Motor Company over the years, or read a book or a magazine article about it. First: Ford’s alphanumeric codes were not in existence when these US cars were being developed. Secondly, the Tempo and Topaz are not in the C segment at Ford, but the CD segment; but, in any case, they did not have an alphanumeric code. Thirdly, the E in CE14 stands for Europe, which, the last time I checked, is not in the US. Fourthly, the numbers are more or less sequential as the projects are lined up at Ford. If 7 is Probe, 11 (if I recall correctly) was the 1990 Ford Laser, then how on earth could 14 be for a car that came out in 1980? (You can point out that CD162 was released before CD132, but there is another story behind that.)
The user who created the original, error-filled, unreferenced page has been awarded stars by their peers at Wikipedia. Well done.
Wikipedia proponents will argue that I should go and correct this myself, but I wonder why I should. I’ve read how Wikipedia works, and a friend who tried to get false information corrected about his wife corrected confirms this. Senior editors check their facts online, and to heck with print references. What they will see is a lot of references to CE14 that back up the error (even though the error began with them), probably accuse and then block the new contributor of vandalism, and the status quo will be preserved. After all, Jimmy Wales—the man most regularly credited as founding Wikipedia—has his own birthday incorrectly stated on the website. It’s what Stephen Colbert called ‘Wikiality’: if enough people believe something to be true, then to heck with the truth.
The Guardian cites some research at PARC:
Chi’s team discovered that the way the site operated had changed significantly from the early days, when it ran an open-door policy that allowed in anyone with the time and energy to dedicate to the project. Today, they discovered, a stable group of high-level editors has become increasingly responsible for controlling the encyclopedia, while casual contributors and editors are falling away. Wikipedia – often touted as the bastion of open knowledge online – has become, in Chi’s words, “a more exclusive place”.
One of the measures the Parc team looked at was how often a user’s edit succeeds in sticking. “We found that if you were an elite editor, the chance of your edit being reverted was something in the order of 1% – and that’s been very consistent over time from around 2003 or 2004,” he says.
Meanwhile, for those who did not invest vast amounts of time in editing, the experience was very different. “For editors that make between two and nine edits a month, the percentage of their edits being reverted had gone from 5% in 2004 all the way up to about 15% by October 2008. And the ‘onesies’ – people who only make one edit a month – their edits are now being reverted at a 25% rate,” Chi explains.
In other words, a change by a casual editor is more likely than ever to be overturned, while changes by the elite are rarely questioned. “To power users it feels like Wikipedia operates in the way it always has – but for the newcomers or the occasional users, they feel like the resistance in the community has definitely changed.”
The late Aaron Swartz, whom I have admired, was quoted in the article:
“I used to be one of the top editors … now I contribute things here and there where I see something wrong.” The reason, he explains, is that the site feels more insular and exclusive than in the past. “In general, the biggest problem I have with the editors is their attitude,” he says. “They say: ‘We’re not going to explain how we make decisions, we basically talk amongst ourselves.’
It appears to be why Larry Sanger, the other guy who founded Wikipedia, left. This very behaviour was something he forecast a decade ago that appears to hold true today (original emphases):
But there are myriad abuses and problems that never make it to mediation, let alone arbitration. A few of the project’s participants can be, not to put a nice word on it, pretty nasty. And this is tolerated. So, for any person who can and wants to work politely with well-meaning, rational, reasonably well-informed people—which is to say, to be sure, most people working on Wikipedia—the constant fighting can be so off-putting as to drive them away from the project. This explains why I am gone; it also explains why many others, including some extremely knowledgeable and helpful people, have left the project.
The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise. There is a deeper problem—or I, at least, regard it as a problem—which explains both of the above-elaborated problems. Namely, as a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise. As a community, far from being elitist (which would, in this context, mean excluding the unwashed masses), it is anti-elitist (which, in this context, means that expertise is not accorded any special respect, and snubs and disrespect of expertise is tolerated). This is one of my failures: a policy that I attempted to institute in Wikipedia’s first year, but for which I did not muster adequate support, was the policy of respecting and deferring politely to experts. (Those who were there will, I hope, remember that I tried very hard.)
I need not recount the history of how this nascent policy eventually withered and died. Ultimately, it became very clear that the most active and influential members of the project–beginning with Jimmy Wales, who hired me to start a free encyclopedia project and who now manages Wikipedia and Wikimedia—were decidedly anti-elitist in the above-described sense.
Consequently, nearly everyone with much expertise but little patience will avoid editing Wikipedia, because they will—at least if they are editing articles on articles that are subject to any sort of controversy—be forced to defend their edits on article discussion pages against attacks by nonexperts. This is not perhaps so bad in itself. But if the expert should have the gall to complain to the community about the problem, he or she will be shouted down (at worst) or politely asked to “work with” persons who have proven themselves to be unreasonable (at best).
I do not doubt for a second that Wikipedia was started with the best of intentions. It was a really good resource a decade ago, when it attracted the best minds to the project. It does, I am sure, attract some incredibly talented people who are generous and knowledgeable. I am told the science pages are some of the best written out there because those ones have been held up to the original Wikipedia standards. But many pages seem to reflect the great social experiment of the internet: email was great before spammers, and YouTube is great without comments. Democratization does not always mean that the masses will improve things, especially in the realm of specialist knowledge.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a very long-winded way of explaining why I took the word wiki off the home page of Autocade 12 hours ago. I started it allowing public edits, using the same software as Wikipedia, and these days, only specialists can edit the site. The word wiki, ignoring its etymology, is now too closely associated with Wikipedia, and that brand is just too tainted these days for my liking.
* Since I approached the IMCDB, which actually has people dedicated to accuracy, many of its CE14 references were removed.—JY