Battlestar Wikipedia

Wikipedia vs MicrosoftBizThoughts… Wikipedia… Major controversy… check it out. (Okay, I admit, it’s not funny at all when I do it.)

I first heard about the controversy on TechCrunch. And yes, this article’s title is a rip, er, I mean homage, to TechCrunch’s article “Battleground Wikipedia” and Battlestar Galatica. (I know, I won’t quit my day job.)

The controversy started when Microsoft (MSFT) employee Doug Mahugh, an Open XML evangelist, hired Rick Jelliffe, a standards activist, to edit and correct the Wikipedia entry on Microsoft Office Open XML. This was seen as a conflict of interest and against one of Wikipedia’s core principles: “that articles must be written from a neutral point of view (NPOV).”

I think such controversies are inevitable in an open & collaborative authoring environment such as a wiki. While the NPOV rule is necessary for articles to remain unbiased, what if you see obvious errors about your organization, or worse, yourself? Wikipedia’s own founder, Jimmy Wales, went through this. As have others. Another case involved John Seigenthaler, ex-publisher and current chairman of the Tennessee newspaper The Tennessean. In November 2005, he discovered that the Wikipedia article on him indicated that he was involved with the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. After having it removed, he declared in an op-ed to USA Today that: “Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool.”

This begs the question: Is an open & collaborative authoring environment an imperfect tool for research? How accurate is it, if there are no gatekeepers for quality? Alexander Halavais, assistant professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University, decided to test this question in 2004. He intentionally created 13 errors in Wikipedia, from outright lies to seemingly credible facts. In contrast to the four months that John Seigenthaler’s inaccuracies existed, Alexander Halavais’ errors were corrected in less than three hours. This has made Halavais a believer, even though many academics still remain skeptical.

In December 2005, Nature tackled this skepticism with a study that compared the accuracy of Wikipedia against Encyclopaedia Britannica. They found that the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies while Britannica contained about three. Not bad for an open & collaborative authoring environment! Britannica has since responded with criticism against the study.

In Halavais’ blog, he sums up the Microsoft controversy and Wikipedia factual accuracy well:

Wikipedia is built on the idea that good material will rise to the top. It specifically does not ban idiots, ideologues, or conspiracy theorists. Why is it that money should make things that much worse? I think this highlights a larger problem. We don’t care who you are, as long as you are not paid, seems to me to be a fuzzy and difficult line to draw.

Wikipedia is built on the idea that the community is large enough to root out misinformation or bias and fix it. Why not trust that?

I don’t believe Mahugh’s actions were that atrocious. I think it’s fair to raise an eyebrow, but it should raise an eyebrow to the intrinsic accuracy concerns over open & collaborative authoring environments (if you believe there are any accuracy concerns).

Mahugh went out of his way to find an expert in the XML community and even specified that: “We don’t need to ‘approve’ anything you have to say, our goal is simply to get more informed voices into the debate… feel free to state your own opinion.” Sounds to me like he was trying to carefully navigate the NPOV rule while improving what he felt were inaccuracies in the entry. What would Seigenthaler, or even Wales himself have done?

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

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