What Wikipedia Is (and Isn’t)

In light of the recent discussions here of Wikipedia, I’d like to throw in my two cents on the subject.

I like Wikipedia. In fact, I like it a lot. In fact, I have gone so far as to do what Eugene Volokh warned against — I’ve actually cited to Wikipedia. In fact, I cited to Wikipedia six times in a recently published law review article. (I’m not alone in this by any means–“wikipedia” gets over 200 hits on a Lexis search of law review articles, almost all of which are cites to entries.) In my case, I cited Wikipedia as a starting point for investigating personalities, such as John Mellencamp, Tom Clancy, and Marni Nixon. I’m aware that some of these entries contain certain inaccuracies, but I feel comfortable citing to them for reasons I’ll explain below. In the alternative, I suppose I could have cited to nothing (not very helpful to the reader) or cited to books (realistically, though, how many people would follow up on those cites?). Also, I should admit that, in part, I cite to Wikipedia sometimes because I hope some readers might take a look at Wikipedia and appreciate it for what it is. However, I’m not trying to deceive people about what Wikipedia is–it is, more or less, the Web, repackaged and reformatted.

In fact, before I cited to Wikipedia, I cited, on rare occasions and for very similar reasons, to web searches on Google for a specific term. (Again, I’m not alone in this, though the numbers of people who did this were smaller.) As far as I’m concerned, citing to a Wikipedia entry for Marni Nixon and a Google search for Marni Nixon are very nearly the same thing. Both are invitations to the reader to enter what you might call a “muddy information portal,” a messy and organic field of data that the citing author does not control, but feels would be helpful to the reader as a starting point for further research. Citing to something like that might be unorthodox, yes, but I don’t think it is beyond the pale.

To my mind, the difference between citing Wikipedia and citing a Web search is just a matter of the target’s format. When we search the Web, Google creates our “entry” on the fly with algorithms that prioritize popular and relevant websites. With Wikipedia, we have the dynamic of Web search somewhat inverted — creators with data they consider relevant to specific terms offer up that data to Wikipedia under a shared hosting umbrella in a common format (and with a commitment to collaboration). Due to this, Wikipedia entries generally look nicer. But other than that, Wikipedia and the World Wide Web are very nearly the same thing. Wikipedia’s openess, to both creation and revision, doesn’t guarantee much accuracy.

Yet I personally find searching the Web’s messy data for specific terms, if not a good way to find authoritative information reliably, an extremely helpful step in my process of research. I would never cite to Wikipedia as an authority in my field. (E.g. for a definition of the Patriot Act.) But for certain purposes, e.g., providing a basic introduction to celebrities, I think it is okay.

I’m aware that many people think there is a serious problem with Wikipedia, but I think that problem is about misconceptions of Wikipedia and perceptions of others’ misconceptions. For instance, Professor Anita Ramasastry a few days ago suggested that Section 230 should be modified to remove Wikipedia, partially, from its scope. Her reasoning:

It presents itself as an online encyclopedia – which has the connotation of reliability (and, in the past, edited content). We’d be foolish not to take blog postings with a grain of salt – but what about an article that is characterized as an encyclopedia entry? Unsurprisingly, many people are relying on the content as if it were correct and using the site as a reference tool. College students often cite to Wikipedia in their research papers, for example. In addition, Wikipedia is very influential. It ranks very highly in the major search engines. This means that Wikipedia’s potential for inflicting damage is amplified by several orders of magnitude.

So Professor Ramasastry obviously knows what Wikipedia is — her concern is just that other people don’t. I suppose my question back is, whose problem should we make this “connotation of reliability”? If students believe everything in Wikipedia is true, can’t we just tell them it isn’t?

In a way, the current fuss over Wikipedia is very reminiscent of conversations I heard ten years ago about websites. It seemed many people were at pains to warn the public (and particularly “students”) that everything you saw on a website was not true. Clueless people were out there posting crazy things on websites, spewing misinformation. Now, it seems, we all have internalized that fact and moved on — such articles still pop up now and then, but not nearly as frequently. And–surprise!–it seems we’re all still using the Web and we all find it pretty useful–perhaps more useful now than ever, given the improvements in powers of search and the greater amounts of data we can sift through. Yet behavior that we now agree is foolish (e.g. not taking facts offered on a random website with a grain of salt) was once deemed a significant problem.

Perhaps we might be a little more confident? Just as we figured out what the Web is (and isn’t), I wonder if we will somehow manage to figure what Wikipedia is (and isn’t) — pretty much the same thing.

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14 Responses

  1. John Armstrong says:

    I’m sorry, but this is just too much of a coincidence. I think you need to have that “Not everything on the web is true” conversation with Dan.

  2. Greg Lastowka says:

    Hmm… When I read Dan’s post, it triggered my skepticism — it seemed way too unlikely and way too much of a tellable story. That was before I knew WWN was the source.

    But while I still doubt it is true, I think we need to confirm it is untrue. *News alert! Once in a while, the stuff you read in Weekly World News might actually be true!* (I used to buy it in college and remember two separate times when I read something in the WWN and had seen the same story elsewhere in respectable media.) This is the kind of weird story from the WWN that just might be true (but might not be.)

    Actually, part of the above post, which I cut but I’ll now indulge in, was about how Wikipedia might be useful as a teaching tool regarding our trust in any kind of printed authority. For instance, when I was reading Orin’s comments about Wikipedia’s lack of trustworthiness on the Patriot Act, I asked myself if I would trust something Orin published on the Patriot Act? Orin is a brilliant guy imho, and I’m sure he knows more about the Patriot Act than 99.99% of the people in the country — but sometimes people make mistakes, or have particular opinions, etc. Would I feel comfortable simply relying on his summary if an interpretation of the Act was really important to me?

    And re the WWN’s funny place among newspapers, even putting aside folks like Jayson Blair, I’m often pretty stunned by how much journalists in generally reliable organizations get wrong when they write about a subject that I know well.

  3. Anon says:

    I agree, for the most part, with your analysis. Wikipedia and other wiki references are advantageous beceause they allow for fairly accurate information that is useful for a quick information, much like encyclopedia’s themselves.

    I remember in middle school writing papers and being told not to cite encyclopedia’s because they were often out-of-date or soft on analysis. I don’t see how this rule of thumb should be different for Wikipedia.

    However, I think that the overall utility of Wikipedia and other wikis will eventually make them a mainstay of our culture. Every individual possesses various wells of information. Wikis provide people with an efficient avenue to share this information with others, on the terms people want.

    Wikis are also comparatively cheap to run. The traditional media model is hire expensive experts and sell the product. Wikis aggregate people’s knowledge and produce something in the ballpark of the traditional media model.

    Even if the traditional media has a slight advantage over wikis in terms of accuracy, the advantages will narrow as more people use and contribute to wikis. Linus’s Law instructs us that the more people who look at a given piece of information the more accurate the information will become. Currently Wikipedia has 2.5 billion page-views per week, if that number increased to 5 billion page views per day the information would likely become more accurate.

    Wikipedia’s true problem is its novelty. Society has yet to embrace this technology, just as people were hestitant to accept other new forms of technology (the internet, cars, television). As the novelty wears and wikis utilitarian benefits will remain and everyone will have an additional resource. We all benefit from this.

  4. Anon says:

    Last sentence should have said . . . As the novelty of wikis fades, wiki’s still will possess utilitiarian benefits. Utilitarian services always seem to win out in the end.

  5. Greg Lastowka says:

    Yes, I think I agree with all that, Anon.

    Part of the point, I think, is that the Wiki isn’t just the same as the Web, it is an improvement on the Web insofar as it concentrates information resources in a more coherent and collaborative system.

    One possible downside I see (that I don’t want to go into too much here) is that while the wiki model works well for functional projects (Linux) where everyone agrees on a paradigm of software performance and what is a “bug,” forcing collaborative agreement doesn’t work quite as well for content that is more inherently artistic or political. (Hence, Orin’s laments about the Patriot Act.) But, like I said, I like Wikis & I think more people should be exposed to them.

  6. anon says:

    I agree it improves the web through aggregation. Hence, why its one of the many new Web 2.0 technologies that strives to build communities and provide users with a more dynamic and engaging experience.

    I think that the wiki by itself is an imperfect technology. However, I predict that wikis will soon fuse with other Web 2.0 technologies, making wikis more ammenable to creative and political settings.

    If your curious, you should check out Democracy 2.0, which is a wiki experimenting with the idea of collaborative legislation. Although just launched and slightly clumsy, the results are fairly interesting.

  7. Simon says:

    I think it’s fair to say that Wikipedia has a good self-correcting mechanism. A perfect example ocurred within the last hour: At 18:58, a user from Whitehall, Pennsylvania ( replaced the entire article related to the Supreme Court of the United States with an alternate history of the Supreme Court, viz., “ROB STOKES LOVES LITTLE BOYS”. Within a minute, an editor had spotted the change and reverted it. Five minutes after that, I happened to glance at my Watchlist, and as with most editors who “adopt” an article, I review all changes for vandalism. So when something goes in to an article, it often gets taken note of.

  8. Bruce says:

    The one problem Wikipedia has that I think will be harder to correct, and distinguishes it from for-profit media, is one of consistency. Some entries are excellent, and some give you the equivalent of the phlogiston theory of heat, but there’s little ability for non-experts to tell the slightly off from the truly crazy.

  9. greglas says:

    Simon — yes, it does correct itself, and it is a rather noteworthy development, I think,that you have volunteers stewarding entries in that way. But I think there is a (small) potential downside, which I take to be Orin Kerr’s point about the Patriot Act. Where people differ about the meaning of “correction,” there might be a tendency to favor consensus over expertise on “hot” issues. I honestly don’t see that as a major issue, but it does pose an interesting problem — if you see it as a problem.

    One thing I didn’t mention is that Wikipedia has become a poster child for a lot of people (admittedly I’m one) who point to it as a model of distributed information production in opposition to more traditional models. So a lot of people want it to be more than it is, and a lot of people want it to be less than it is. Because of this, it stands in as a proxy in certain debates over information politics.

  10. Skeptic Rant says:

    5 Random Links – Wikipedia

    Greg Lastowka makes the point that Wikipedia is just a reflection of the Web in regards to the question of reliability and verifiability. The parallels are striking.

  11. Anonymoose says:

    I love wikipedia, even when it’s wrong.

    Check out this joint wikipedia/google search thingy

    I made for a home page.

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  14. I think Wikipedia is a great source of information although not an accurate and true source for citing fact. It’s a hodge podge of ideas and knowledge from a wide range of people. It some ways, allowing multiple authors clutters up the pages, but on the other, it provides a broad scope of information. What one person may think correlates and is of important, another may not even think to include. I use Wikipedia regularly for little random facts that I know I wont find easily and it often helps narrow down my search of specific information. For example if you search “Domestic Violence” on Wikipedia, you’ll see a short paragraph that simply states what level of relationship two people must have for a dispute to be labeled “domestic”. To me, this is an essential detail to be included, yet it was nowhere to be found in the page when I first came upon it. So I added, “The definition of a “domestic violence” is dependent upon the relationship between the perpetrator and victim. Depending on jurisdiction, they may be considered to be in a “domestic relationship” if they are married, cohabiting, immediate family member, blood relation, parents of a child/children, or two people who date, or have been engaged to be married.” And cited my source: http://www.sandiegocrimedefense.com/domesticviolence-restrainingorders.html This is information I was surprised to find wasn’t included and found a viable source to cite therefore improving the page overall and providing additional helpful information