Unless you regularly read Salon, you probably missed last week’s interesting article about anextraordinary case of revenge editing on Wikipedia. This article should matter to anyone who cares about Wikipedia, and, more generally, it should matter to anyone who cares about the long run success of open platforms for accumulating content.
Look, the world is not a perfect place. It is full of jealousy and envy, and all kinds of flawed human behavior. Wikipedia did not promise to eliminate such behavior, but it is remarkable how Wikipedia seems to survive in spite of human frailty.
Wikipedia has a strategy for human frailty. It does try to organize the accumulation of contributions and then it allows those contributions to be reviewed by many participants. It does let the opinions of the many alter the contribution of the one. That seems to hold abuse in check. Or so I thought.
To be sure, Wikipedia has gone forward more on a promise than any actual evidence or experience. So goes the mantra: if enough readers and contributors reviewed articles, the article would tend towards a balanced portrayal of topics. It is just a promise, but so many of us have bought into it. And it has been ten years since Wikipedia first started. It has seemed to work reasonably well.
Not that Wikipedia is perfect. Not that the model worked straight out the gate. As it has become more prominent some of the vulnerabilities have become more apparent. It has been tweaked along the way in order to make it better.
But this story is disturbing precisely because no simple tweak will solve it.
Two of Wikipedia’s biggest vulnerabilities play a role in in revenge editing. First, attention is skewed, so not all articles receive the same extent of review. Many articles receive less review – a lot less, as it turns out. Second, as in any project involving many participants, Wikipedia depends on etiquette, mature behavior, and the unwritten rules of civilized behavior. It has to, since every contributor gets a considerable amount of discretion.
Put those two together and you get the potential for massive chaos on some of Wikipedia’s more obscure entries and pages, where the crowd is not really paying attention.
More to the point, what happens when one person sets on a persistent and vengeful path and will not respect the truth? What happens when someone seeks to sully the name of a rival’s entry on Wikipedia? What happens when all this takes place on some of the less prominent pages of Wikipedia, where not many people are paying close attention?
Want to understand why Wikipedia would fall apart quickly if every contributor violated etiquette whenever they had the discretion to behave badly? This article describes one example. Check it out.
(A shout-out goes to Phil Weverka for passing this one along to me.)