Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler

For the last couple of weeks, i’ve been watching the Wikipedia bru-ha-ha. As folks probably know, i got really upset a while back when folks were talking about Wikipedia being the essential collection of knowledge, meant to replace school books and other refereed knowledge containers. I still strongly believe that Wikipedia will not be that. But Jimmy Wales reminded me that Wikipedia is meant to be an encyclopedia, not a library replacement. It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts. This convinced me and i developed a great deal of respect for the project and its intentions. Of course, i still get annoyed with Wikipedia obsessives who promote it as the panacea to all knowledge problems.

So, when i heard about Seigenthaler, i rolled my eyes. Welcome to being a public figure – people will say mean things about you on the web. None of it is guaranteed to be true – it’s the web. (Of course, my view probably stems from being a native web kid – no one likes the meannies but we’ve gotten used to it.) Wikipedia is better than most of the web because YOU CAN CHANGE IT. And if you inform them that someone is acting in a malicious way, Wikipedians will actually track it to keep it neutral. Can you even imagine Google doing that for every webpage out there? Ha ha ha ha ha. Try getting an article that is libelous removed from the Google index, like a mean-spirited blog entry. Not going to happen (unless you’re Scientology).

Seigenthaler had a very reasonable conversation with Wikipedia, telling them of the troubles. Wikipedia, in Wikipedia-form, acted immediately to remedy the situation, even volunteering to remove the history. I applauded them. And then Seigenthaler wrote a rather mean-spirited, anti-Wikipedia opinion piece in the USA Today. He went around calling for the end to Wikipedia. Uncool. I was outraged.

What pissed me off more was how the academic community pointed to this case and went “See! See! Wikipedia is terrible! We must protest it and stop it! It’s ruining our schools!” All of a sudden, i found myself defending Wikipedia to academics instead of reminding the pro-Wikipedians of its limitations in academia. I kept pointing out that they wouldn’t let students cite from encyclopedias either. I reminded folks that the answer is not to protest it, but to teach students how to read it and to understand its strengths and limitations. To actually TEACH students to interpret web material. I reminded academics that Wikipedia provides information to people who don’t have access to books and that mostly-good information is far better than none. Most importantly, i reminded academics that the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia are super solid and if they had a problem with them, they could fix them. Academics have a lot of knowledge, but all too often they forget that they are teachers and that there is great value in teaching the masses, not just the small number of students who will help their careers progress. Alas, public education has been devalued and information elitism is rampant in an age where we finally have the tools to make knowledge more accessible. Sad. (And one of the many things that is making me disillusioned with academia these days.) I found myself being the Wikipedia promoter because i found the extreme academic viewpoint to be just as egregious as the extreme Wikipedia viewpoint.

And then, as if i couldn’t be more cranky, i watched Internet Researchers take up the same anti-Wikipedia argument. I was floored. These aren’t just academics, they’re the academics who study the web. The academics who should know better. But they felt as though it was a problem that Wikipedia would allow for a man to be defamed. As the conversation progressed, someone pointed out that Wikipedia’s policies and platform supports Seigenthaler’s concern that “irresponsible vandals [can] write anything they want about anybody.” Much to my complete and utter joy, Jimmy Wales responded with a fantastic structural comparison that i felt should be surfaced from the mailing list and shared to the world at large:

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.

What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not _allowing_ something just because they haven’t taken measures to _forcibly prevent it_ a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.

I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.

All too often we blame the technology for problematic human behaviors. We fail to recognize that technology makes them more visible but the human behaviors are rooted in larger issues. In turn, we treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The solution is not to bandaid the problems by taking away or limiting the technologies, but to make the world a better place from the inside out.

I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.

I will be truly sad if academics don’t support the project, don’t contribute knowledge. I will be outraged if academics continue to talk about having Wikipedia eliminated as a tool for information dispersal. Sure, students shouldn’t be citing from Wikipedia instead of the primary texts they were supposed to have read. But Wikipedia is a stunning supplement to most texts and often provides pointers to other relevant material that one didn’t know existed. We should be teaching our students how to interpret the materials they get on the web, not banning them from it. We should be correcting inaccuracies that we find rather than protesting the system. We have the knowledge to be able to do this, but all too often, we’re acting like elitist children. In this way, i believe academics are more likely to lose credibility than Wikipedia.

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27 thoughts on “Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler

  1. Caryn Anderson

    Perhaps the peer reviewed comparison of science articles in Wikipedia and Britannica conducted by Nature and published online today (14 December) may help smooth some feathers?

    Internet encyclopaedias go head to head

    Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.

    Published online: 14 December 2005; | doi:10.1038/438900a

  2. Ryan Shaw

    I haven’t seen a general “Wikipedia is bad” consensus among academics. I would say the majority consider Wikipedia an interesting experiment, are concerned about issues of information quality, and hope that these issues can be overcome. Certainly there are a wide range of views, from reactionaries like Ken Friedman to pie-in-the-sky idealists. It’s academics’ job to think hard about these issues and not just accept beliefs in “the wisdom of crowds” or “the need for centralized authority.” Just because academics are criticizing Wikipedia’s flaws doesn’t necessarily mean they are ignoring its strengths.

    As for the Nature article, I don’t know if they chose a good way to evaluate Wikipedia. I’m not surprised that entries on established scientific concepts are high-quality, as they likely see a lot of traffic and get attention from dedicated volunteers. But what an encyclopedia *doesn’t* contain is as important as what it does–this comparison ignores that aspect (selection) completely.

    I’m actually glad to see the uproar over Seigenthaler, because it indicates that Wikipedia has reached the point that the mainstream considers it important enough to care about, and that gives me confidence that Wikipedia will solve these problems and others as they arrive. The coming division into “stable” and “live” versions, borrowed from the free software world, is a great idea. Visual representations of usage and editing activity, immediately identifiable to users, would help too. I’d also like to see some sort of system for “branding” or “seals of approval.” I’m sure we’ll see more great ideas over the next few years (and I hope to think of some of them).

  3. Dana Spiegel


    One of the other aspects of this that I haven’t seen discussed is how this situation with wikipedia is a good example of social enforcement and self-correction.

    Society (and a few individuals in particular) felt harmed and put pressure on the person who did the harm. That person, a (somewhat) responsible member of our society, recognized his errors and both admitted guilt and apologized. The person harmed accepted the apology and moved on.

    This is a great example of all of the social enforcement of societal norms and expectations (we expect that others will not lie and defame us) and the way that a member of society can apropriately address the situation they created by violating a societal norm (and presumably learn from the mistake), and society didn’t unnecessarily punish him.

    In this way (as in many others) Wikipedia encourages a healthy social culture expecting people will be (mostly) responsible, and not by default assuming the worst about people (as much of the rest of our society does).

  4. Submarine

    I’m unsure as to what part of “academia” denounces Wikipedia. To me, it seems to be somewhat well received in the “hard sciences” – but in the hard sciences, we don’t hand out essays to write to students, so they can’t just copy whatever stuff they find on the web, so this may give us a different perspective.

    Could you make it more explicit who you allude to?

  5. James Lawson

    Living a few miles from the city, if I needed information on a certain subject, I would write it down on a piece of paper as a reminder to check the encyclopedias at the library. Now with wikipedia, I can get some basic information about the subject, then verify it with what is in the encyclopedias at the local library. I agree that wikipedia is a great first line of information on a certain subject, but should always be supported by another publication on that subject. As the old Russian saying goes: “Trust but verify.”

  6. p@

    I really enjoyed your article danah. I was becoming very frustrated with the way this whole ordeal was unfolding in the media, particularly in reference to an article in the Register by Andrew Orlowski that deals with ‘moral responsibility.’

    I’ve been following this story on Slashdot and today they mentioned the Nature article which really lifted my spirits.

    Ryan Shaw makes a good point, but I do believe that the comparison using scientific topics was a good choice. It happens to be Wikipedia’s strong suit, in my opinion, but it should be Britannica’s as well. It is a comparison after all, no need to un-level the playing field.

    Wikipedia is thought to be less credibal than traditional print encyclopedias. If that were the case then we would have seen a higher error ratio in the results. It stood at around 4:3. Wikipedia users went on to note that the articles being compared had a lot more content than there print counterpart as well, which actually skews the errors/word ratio in Wikipedia’s favor…

    Now on to my question: Has anyone here contributed to Wikipedia entries? It seems like a pretty educated bunch of readers and I’m just a little curious…

    a little food for thought from the nature article:

    “As well as comparing the two encyclopedias, Nature surveyed more than 1,000 Nature authors and found that although more than 70% had heard of Wikipedia and 17% of those consulted it on a weekly basis, less than 10% help to update it. ”

  7. hugh

    great post. for what it’s worth, I’ve updated a good number of articles – mostly on science topics. I went thru a bit of a wiki addiction, but I seem to be in remission.

    one thing that seems to get downplayed is that it’s free (beer). the cost of that freeness may be some errors and the odd bit of slander.

    have you seen:


  8. Adam Megacz

    Over here in Soda/Cory the initial reaction by some has been fear, but that will subside.

    Overall, the reaction has been immensely positive. As a result of the hype, in the last two weeks alone, I’ve come back in contact with researchers at Boise State, Rice, and a few other places that I haven’t heard from in over a year — mainly because they discovered Wikipedia this week and edited pages I had started (ie on my watchlist). This is a very cool social effect: “Wikipedia as class reunion for researchers”. This happens to me from time to time, but there’s been a big upsurge lately.

    Ultimately, Wikipedia needs to resurrect Nupedia in some form — like a core “peer-reviewed 1%” that can be trusted. Nupedia didn’t work because you’ll never build anything close to the size of Wikipedia that way, but Wikipedia needs the Nupedia approach to go from “big website” to “social institution”. BTW I think that Nupedia’s “must have a PhD” requirement was inane.

  9. Stephen Downes

    There is a large academic community that I work with that not only supports Wikipedia but the general movement toward wikis, blogging and informal media in general. None of us pretend that any of these individually will address all our needs in scholarship and learning, but we are very aware of how much they contribute. It is tempting, but would be wrong, to depict academia as reacting negatively toward Wikipedia and new media. Such people receive more press, because they generate conflict, while the rest of us, meanwhile, work very hard toward developing and supporting these valuable initiatives.

  10. Sandy Piderit

    Hi Danah,

    I found your post from a link on Brewed Fresh Daily, the hub of the citizen-activist blogosphere in NortheastOhio, where many of us are up in arms about Dick Feagler’s recent column in the Plain Dealer denouncing blogging and blogreading based in part on Siegenthaler’s criticisms of Wikipedia.

    I agree with you that I would have been more supportive of Siegenthaler if he had called for improvements in Wikipedia, rather than an end to the experiment in open-source encyclopedia development. I think it’s too early to end the experiment, because many of the projects underway at Wikipedia can help to address key academic criticisms of the project.

    I am an academic myself, and found myself evangelizing for the Wikipedia experiment at a recent gathering of fellow organizational scholars. (I blogged about my experience here) I think Wikipedia is a fascinating social experiment in replacing a corporate structure and a paid-contributor model (which has drawbacks as well as strengths) with a community structure and a volunteer-contributor model. If I ever get tenure, I may even do a study or two about that!

    So I wanted to reassure you that you are not the only academic out there who would be sad if academics do not start contributing to the Wikipedia effort in larger numbers in the future.

    Thanks for a good post!

  11. Jon Garfunkel

    Agreed with most, especially Stephen Downes, who points out that “academia” is hardly monolithic. Nonetheless, I wonder why academic societies don’t constructively assemble their own knowledgebases, and broker them to the public.

    But just to stab at Jimbo’s metaphor a bit:

    Steak knives are alright as long as the lights are on in the restaurant. Now turn the lights off. For good measure, imagine that not your local Cheesecake Factory but Rick’s Cafe Americain in Casablanca. That’s the added burden of dealing with a sometimes-anonymous community.

    I also wonder if a online ‘pedia would have turned out quite differently if it were comprised solely of hyperlinks to other sources. That structure would ultimately be much more difficult to abuse.

  12. MArty

    Is it really like the knifes in the restaurant?

    Wikipedia design seems more like letting folks in the kitchen. Many more people come to the “restaurant” just looking for a meal (readers vs. posters). You are really suggesting we design a restaurant where people can come in an order anything on the menu but not expect the food to have the right ingredients or be fully cooked. However, I often go to social settings that I don’t know the cooks. They may even be volunteers. The events are not regulated (community pot lucks, festivals, firemen pancake breakfasts etc.)

    I love wikipedia but it is a social trust and expectation that matters.

    Who assumes your getting fancy french food when you show up at a county fair? Only an ass orders the baked salmon from a hot dog stand.

  13. Aaron Barnhart

    I just had a conversation with Andrew Postman, son of the late Neil Postman. He just wrote a new intro to the 20th anniversary edition of his dad’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death. I’ll post the audio later this week at my site (if you care), but the relevant part to this discussion is that Neil could not foresee in 1985, when he wrote his book, that the explosion of channels, both on TV and online, would create a universe of commentary and reaction and re-reaction ad almost infinitum, that one simply could not have anticipated in a time of ABC, NBC and CBS.

    Now, as Andrew Postman points out, no sooner does someone say or post something outrageous than a bit-torrent of counterargument sweeps in from other corners to blunt its effect. “Out of control” is a great way to describe it, and I agree, it’s an outstanding feature of this new system, as the activists in Northeast Ohio are proving this week. It’s why you can’t take seriously the people who complain that “bloggers brought down Dan Rather” or “Wikipedia ruined my reputation.” No, bloggers fed a system that kept alive a story that wound up bringing down Dan Rather. And John Seigenthaler’s complaint brought about a whirlwind of indignation, followed by this current crosswind of perspective to which we are now contributing. And as a result, even he would have to admit that his reputation really wasn’t blemished at all by that Wikipedia slam (except that several thousand bloggers now consider him a complete cyber-doofus).

  14. John Johansen

    Until the academic communinity can get a handle on the sources they do consider valid, they shouldn’t be so critical of Wikipedia.

    Was listening to this
    NPR Story last week:

  15. lindsey

    Oh wow, the anti-wikipedia stance has been pretty ridiculous. I happen to be a student. At a college. While I know because it is edited and contributed to by random people, I know that sometimes I may run across biased or false info on Wikipedia, but I’d rather have it there than not. Many times after a lecture if I don’t understand something at all, or find interest in something that wasn’t discussed in length, lately Wikipedia has been the first place I go. I remember having to read a certain section of Nietzsche’s writings for philosophy, and started wondering about Nietzsche himself but during the semester I simply did not have enough time to go hunting for a huge essay or book on him. So I went to Wikipedia. The stuff there was enough to strike my interests to go find more information. I’ve also used it to help with understanding evolutionary periods of time, the Constitution, various court cases…and also noticed Wikipedia has some fun things you’d never find in a paper encyclopedia, like information on rock bands, or ‘internet phenomena’.

    I don’t know why there is a huge lack of trust of users of the internet to know that anything they find on the web may not be entirely true, a lack of trust of internet users who need more info to go find paper versions of encyclopedias, books, magazines, etc etc. I know I’m not the only one who goes to these other sources for info just by seeing who is hanging around my college’s library and to see what sources they are using.

    I agree that academia should be jumping on this thing rather than being info elitists, and teaching how properly to use web materials. I personally had a philosophy professor that tried to teach my class how to properly use web materials, and to cite them, and to realize if you cannot cite something online to take it with a large grain of salt and move on to a more reliable source.

    All I know is that Wikipedia is not 100% bad, and if it were to ever disappear I think a severely valuable source of information would be gone.

  16. if:book

    wikipedia, lifelines, and the packaging of authority

    In a nice comment in yesterday’s Times, “The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts,” George Johnson revisits last month’s Seigenthaler smear episode and Nature magazine Wikipedia-Britannica comparison, and decides to place his long…

  17. Tony


    I work for academia and I don’t think Wikipedia is that bad… But I don’t think it’s that good either. I posted a comments about what, in my humble opinion could be done.

    I’m new to the blogging community by the way.

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