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Monday, October 25, 2010

WR_3.2. ANNEX 1.

ANNEX 1. Writing 3.2.

Bias, sabotage haunt Wikipedia's free world

Getting it wrong.

With no editorial board, Wikipedia (at works amazingly well. However many registered users there are, the Wikipedians have developed a complex and more-or-less democratic system of rules and policies for contributions, such as neutral point of view, civility, citation of sources, and no libel or vandalism.

The project has 150 computer servers in South Korea, Amsterdam, Paris, and Florida, all managed day to day by volunteers. Indeed, the whole thing is run by volunteers, with a corps of about 800 administrators at the center -- experienced, committed Wikipedians with special powers, elected by the community at large.

While Wales -- internally known as Jimbo, and sometimes referred to as the ''god-king" or ''benevolent dictator" -- retains ultimate control as president and chairman of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, he doesn't supervise content and takes no salary. He has only two full-time staff members, and funds to support the project come mostly from public fund-raising, in gifts of $50 to $100. Wikimedia Foundation -- which has spun off such ''sister projects" as Wikiquote, Wikinews, and Wictionary -- spent $750,000 last year and expects to spend $1 million to $2 million this year.

Anyone can edit.

''There are many more good people than bad -- in the world, and in this project," said Wales. It's a remark you hear from many Wikipedians. Wales, raised in Alabama, had long had a dream ''to have a free, high-quality encyclopedia in all the languages of the world. I think that global universal access to basic information can have a transformative impact on the world."

At first, Wales says, he doubted the anyone-can-edit system would work over time. He had suspected that, ''as traffic grew, we would have to lock things down. The major revelation was how good people are -- the vast majority of edits are helpful. We were able to remain open and flexible after more growth than we thought possible." Today the encyclopedia has multiplied into versions in more than 200 languages, 85 of them with at least 1,000 articles. By some estimates, there are 40,000 contributors in all languages.

But the vandals multiplied, too, and the sabotage points up a fundamental philosophical difference between the Wales and Sanger schools. Wales believes open editing should remain, and that evildoers, or ''trolls," can be defeated or kept at bay by the good people, using sensible rules and effective tools. Sanger [co-founder] believes supervision should be in the hands of specialists. ''Wikipedia is not sufficiently committed to the involvement of expert contributors or to a review process that is credible to the public," he said. ''There is a difference between something that is more or less guaranteed to be the best representation of expert knowledge, and a pretty good guess on the part of amateurs working together."

The vandal fighters.

Some contributors also lost patience with the ''edit wars," in which a persistent ignoramus battles with a well-informed contributor, each side deleting the changes of the other. Such wars erupt over politics, culture, biography, and religion, and pages often have to be ''protected" -- wholly or partially locked against changes. Cynics might expect the vandals to win in the end -- after all, graffiti artists never quit. But there's a core of loyal Wikipedians who are determined that they won't.

Wikipedia administrator Ryan Kaldari, 28, of Nashville, is an active vandal-fighter. (...) Now he watches some sensitive articles like a hawk and several times has temporarily protected them. Kaldari insisted, ''It's important for the history to be there -- to have a record of how an article has evolved."

Another vandal-fighter is administrator David Denniston, 48, of Santa Barbara, Calif. A high-tech manager and composer with a doctorate in music, Denniston has written 400 articles on medieval music. At home and at work, Denniston watches the ''recent changes" page and his own ''watch list," and using various shortcut software tools available to insiders, he zaps vandalism almost as soon as it appears.

Voices of skepticism.

Aside from sabotage, for many people the big question about Wikipedia is accuracy.

A December article in the journal Nature found that at least in science, its articles are only slightly less accurate than Encyclopedia Britannica. And college students are increas-ingly relying on it. However, some academics are skeptical.

An e-mail request to a variety of scholars to look at articles in their fields turned up some complaints. >>But most of those queried had no big complaints. ''Thus far my experience of Wikipedia has been quite positive, with quite high levels of accuracy," replied historian William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin and author of ''Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West." ''I just skimmed the entry on Chicago, and what I did read seemed basically accurate."

Even so, anyone may find errors. Wikipedians brush off such lapses. Wikipedia is a work in progress, they insist, and Larson's repair to the Tubman entry only proves that it works. The site has an explicit disclaimer: ''Use Wikipedia at your own risk. . . .Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here."

Despite the questions, there's widespread admiration for Wikipedia among the Internet intelligentsia.

''I keep waiting to find out that there's really a group of editors behind it," said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance at Oxford University and cofounder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He has doubts, too. ''It's not brute-force vandalism that will be a problem," he said. ''There's a more subtle bias and spin." Once publicists and marketers realize Wikipedia is one of the top results on Google searches, Zittrain said, ''whether it's Wal-Mart, a university, or a person, they will paint a positive picture on it. When it becomes so successful, people with agendas have reason to be part of the fray."

Tomorrow: Meet the Wikipedians [you read parts of it in task 4] David Mehegan can be reached at

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