The love/hate relationship some of us IT Business Edge staffers have with Wikipedia has generally veered toward hate -- or at least discomfort.
After an incident earlier this summer in which a Wikipedia poster admitted submitting "something that was at that time a piece of wrong unsourced information" and adding that this kind of behavior is"typical on Wikipedia," our Ken-Hardin concluded that the story "only serves to make me more distrustful of what can be a useful, overview resource." How's that for faint praise?
I was harsher -- and probably hopped up on caffeine -- when I likened Wikipedia to communes in my post from March: "It's a great idea, initiated for the right reasons and with the best intentions. But in practice, it's more of a muddy mess than anything else, with a megalomaniac in charge." Despite my concerns about accuracy, however, I do use Wikipedia for research -- though I won't run with information included therein unless I can corroborate it with additional sources.
If there's one thing I've learned during two decades in publishing, it's that political organizations, big corporations and other organizations will go to sometimes ridiculous lengths to sway public opinion in their favor. But hey, now they don't have to -- not with Wikipedia.
There's now concrete evidence of Wikipedia edits made in the name of self-interest rather than accuracy, thanks to some clever cyber-sleuthing by a Cal Tech graduate student named Virgil Griffith. By cross-referencing anonymous Wikipedia edits with data on Internet IP addresses, Griffith demonstrated that there's plenty of this activity going on, reports Wired.
Sure, Wikipedia's system of half-assed checks and balances can stop some of this. In fact, a Wikipedia contributor chastened ATM manufacturer Diebold about deleting content when someone at Diebold HQ removed passages describing security experts' concerns over its voting machines. (Having covered Diebold's business extensively in my previous life as the editor of an ATM trade pub, I am quite familiar with its voting machine angst.)
But not every organization is as heavy-handed as Diebold. Wal-Mart, for instance, has been far more subtle in its tweaks (perhaps having learned something from its ill-fated foray into corporate blogging). Wired notes that such editing has become less obvious since 2006, when stories broke about the popularity of the practice among Congressional staffers -- perhaps due to corporate policies covering the behavior.
It will be interesting to see whether Wikipedia can further arrest this kind of white-washing with its efforts to get contributors to be more transparent about their qualifications.