Wikipedia, Jayson Blair, and first draft charm

So I have this vision of Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder (sometimes described as the website's co-founder) as the Wizard of Oz, frantically tugging the curtain back to avoid scrutiny as the uncomfortable truth about his online encyclopedia emerges. For Wikipedia is not the democratic, open-access Internet repository of knowledge, back-stopped by self-correcting, collaborative editing, that we had been led to believe.

On the contrary, it is a lot more like, well, let Katie Hafner of the New York Times explain:

The bulk of the writing and editing on Wikipedia is done by a geographically diffuse group of 1,000 or so regulars, many of whom are administrators on the site.

"A lot of people think of Wikipedia as being 10 million people, each adding one sentence," Mr. Wales said. "But really the vast majority of work is done by this small core community."

And, we learn from Hafner's article, Wales' site has tightened up its controls on those who can contribute, as partisanship and entry-fiddling has grown.

At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts — one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.

None of this should be surprising. I had always suspected that a small group of Wiki zealots kept the site running; and in some knowledge areas (pop culture, economics, statistics), it should be noted, Wikipedia is fairly accurate and well-written. The often-brilliant tech contrarian Nick Carr first noted (on his blog Rough Type) the Wikipedia clamp-down in May:

Wikipedia, the encyclopedia that "anyone can edit," was a nice experiment in the "democratization" of publishing, but it didn't quite work out. Wikipedia is dead. It died the way the pure products of idealism always do, slowly and quietly and largely in secret, through the corrosive process of compromise.

Carr has a wicked sense of humor as well, as can be seen from his closing addendum:

CORRECTION: Jimmy Wales informs me that in fact there was never a time when "anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia," as I originally wrote. "There have always been restrictions on editing," he says. I guess I made the mistake, as others may have as well, of taking literally Wikipedia's slogan that it is "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." I apologize for my error. I have revised two sentences in the second paragraph to correct it.

What are we to make of this? In a sense, Wales and his "core community" have had to face up to reality. Carr notes that Wikipedia was "the poster child for the brave new world of democratic, 'citizen' media, where quality naturally 'emerges' from the myriad contributions of a crowd." The reality, it turns out, is that editorial gatekeepers with knowledge and judgment do matter. Expertise, training, experience is needed. Partisans, conspiracy theorists and cranks will muck things up if given access.

Lore Sjöberg had a hilarious riff on Wikipedia's New Age philosophy in Wired magazine ("The Wikipedia FAQK") in which he addressed the question: "But why should I contribute to an article? I'm no expert."

That's fine. The Wikipedia philosophy can be summed up thusly: "Experts are scum." For some reason people who spend 40 years learning everything they can about, say, the Peloponnesian War — and indeed, advancing the body of human knowledge — get all pissy when their contributions are edited away by Randy in Boise who heard somewhere that sword-wielding skeletons were involved. And they get downright irate when asked politely to engage in discourse with Randy until the sword-skeleton theory can be incorporated into the article without passing judgment.

It is easy to mock the excesses of Wikipedia (Sjöberg's send-up of the bogus Wikipedia entry on newspaperman John Siegenthaler, who was falsely implicated in the Kennedy assassinations, is priceless); and I can imagine Ayn Rand turning over in her grave at the thought of the collectivist ethos of Wikipedia (it does have a Borg-like quality to it). Rand can rest easy: the failings of this "citizen journalism" model are now surfacing. Wales and his "core" have apparently learned the lesson, one mainstream journalists have long known–accuracy, neutrality and context are not easy to attain and nigh impossible when you can't vouch for the bona fides of the authors or gatekeepers.

Take Jayson Blair, the serial fabricator who fooled a host of editors at the august New York Times before his exposure. The new Times ombudsman, Byron Calame, announced on Sunday in his column that, due to reforms in the Times newsroom, it was unlikely that Blair could today get away with his journalistic fraud. To be exact, Calame wrote "the tightening of procedures and the revamping of newsroom culture initiated over the past three years make such an extensive journalistic fraud much less likely to occur again at the paper."

But neither he, nor any of the Siegal Committee members he talked to, ruled out the possibility of single fraudulent articles making it into print, and it seemed to me that only Allan M. Siegel, the recently retired assistant managing editor, would go on the record that the "mass production of plagiarized and/or fabricated stories" couldn't happen again.

It is hard getting it correct the first time. As a blogger I know it is much more likely that I will make mistakes because I don't have editors or gatekeepers reading or reviewing what I write. Having that second read, that second or third pair of eyes, helps catch simple errors, confusing or misleading prose and sloppy thinking or language. Great editors insist not only on accuracy but also push for meaning and context in what they revise.

It reminds me of something writer George Saunders said (at a panel entitled "Just the facts: truth and the internet," (held during the PEN New York World Voices festival): "It can be very tempting once you've typed it just to hit send, but I would say, just to be a little bit hyperbolic, the biggest danger of the internet is that we are going to be seduced by our own first draft charm. Just because it's quick doesn't mean it's smarter."

Much of the charm of the Web is "first draft charm." But just as the rise of the Internet did not repeal the law of economics (a "sexy business model" is all fine and well, but eventually you need paying customers), it has not altered the need for gatekeeping and editing (or conscious self-editing)–not if you take words and ideas seriously.

The issues of establishing the facts, of accuracy and of relying on objective-means reportage are the same for Wikipedia as they are for the New York Times (and, I would argue, as they are for the individual blogger). What shouldn't be lost, however, is the need for that accuracy, for the checks and balances of tight editing, for the individual responsibility (and, yes, conscience) of writers and reporters in checking and verifying the facts–whether or not they have an official press card.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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