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Monday, Aug. 20, 2007 at 11:42 am

Wikipedia and the Wisdumb of Crowds

By Robert Gorell
August 20th, 2007

Courtesy of WikipediaLast week, Wired reported on a program that allows us to see who’s editing Wikipedia. Invented by Virgil Griffith, a graduate student at Cal Tech, the WikiScanner has finally brought transparency to the encyclopedia that considers us all to be experts.

A few of my favorite revelations:

. There may be some irony here.

Nortel – Accounting scandal, what accounting scandal?? This sweeping rewrite of Nortel’s page removes all mention of the 2000-2004 accounting scandal that resulted in investigations from the RCMP and the Attorney General, the CEO being fired for cause, numerous directors being shown the door, etc.

. They replaced the critical and best-selling book “Fast Food Nation” with the more friendly book “McDonald’s: Behind the Arches”. They also removed a link to anti-McDonald’s site “McSpotlight”.

Don’t be a Web 2.0 lemming!

Sure, Wikipedia is directionally helpful. For instance, I learned that lemmings aren’t suicidal, they’re just stupid. As you may know, the rumors of these rodents jumping off cliffs en masse are overstated. If you’re looking for myth coverage, Wikipedia’s the place to be. Meanwhile, MSN’s Encarta tells us that lemmings “…swim lakes and rivers, cross mountains, and eat all vegetation in their path. Eventually, some reach the sea; attempting to swim it as if it were a river, they are drowned.”

Reminds us of the a few corporations, does it not?

It’s not surprising that governments and corporations are being outed for their Wikipedia spin-jobs; what’s surprising is that it didn’t happen sooner. How is it that Wikipedia couldn’t have done this themselves long ago?

Unfortunately, there’s no Wikipdeia entry for “wikiality,” one of Stephen Colbert’s invented words. Still, this video can illustrate the true PR costs of “wikilobbying”.

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Comments (8)

  1. funny video. good to know that wikipedia is letting you know who is editing entries. they should have done that sooner. because everyone is not an expert.

  2. I’d agree- some sort of expert verification, albeit difficult (same problem Google is predicted to have with News comments), turned into a % trust score for each entry would be nice.

  3. Please bear in mind that Wikiscanner only retrieves the IP addresses of anonymous editors. People with Wikipedia accounts have their IP addresses shielded from view. So, there’s probably more going on, by more and different people, than meets Wikiscanner’s eye.

  4. Yes Sanity, you are right on. The way this story is being perpetuated reveals that the authors do not understand how WP works and this whole thing has been overblown.

    The IP address sniff is only anonymous edits and since anyone serious about impacting the records would first setup an account to bypass this lack of anonymity, this is merely showing that unorganized employees are doing this and it is not some masterful “spin-jobs” planned by PR departments.

  5. PK,

    You’re absolutely right. I should have been clear to say that this isn’t necessarily strategic corporate spin, but that employees at any level are being irresponsible with Wikipedia.

    These anonymous editors have still they’ve made their companies look bad, though, so it remains a serious issue of policy; for the companies involved and, one would think, for Wikipedia itself.

    Obviously, this works both ways. A misguided executive could tell an employee to edit a Wiki post anonymously. So don’t you think this news might get them to think twice before doing so next time? And who said public relations has to come from a PR department? I doubt any respectable PR firm/department would tell its client, as it were, to rewrite history on Wikipedia. It’s possible, sure, but that wasn’t what I hoped to convey. I also think that point is clear in the Wired piece.

    Regardless of who’s responsible at the end of the day, the brand’s perception is being tainted — whether you’re talking about Diebold, the CIA, or McDonalds.

  6. Agreed…it all looks bad, no matter who does it. But wikipedia editors (in my opinion) have a negative bias against corporations. I was involved in an issue with a company where information that was patently false was posted and an editor would not remove it without published proof to the contrary. It becomes a guilty until you can prove you’re innocent situation for companies.

    On another issue we even produced SEC audited documents to backup an edit but those were deemed not credible enough!?! However, *any* media article produced by a third party, no matter how poorly written and researched, was considered 100% reliable fact.

  7. PK,

    That’s really interesting. Perhaps Wikipedia’s had a bit too much of its own Kool-Aid?

    Their response in the New York Times was pretty muted:

    “Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia, says the site discourages such ‘conflict of interest’ editing. ‘We don’t make it an absolute rule,’ he said, ‘but it’s definitely a guideline.’”

  8. Yeah, I spoke with Jimmy when working on that project and he seemed like a nice enough guy. Hell, he returned my call for one thing! In the end, it was taking so much time to deal with and the editors were so absolutely negative that we just moved on and lived with the false information on there.

    I like Wikipedia a lot and still use it frequently, but there is bias in there both ways and it is unfair to take anonymous posts from well-meaning-but-clueless employees and say that its a spin job. People are supposed to care and be proud about the place they work and defending the hard work they put in there should not automatically be viewed as sinister.

    I view Wikipedia a lot like Mapquest directions: its usually correct, but should always be sanity checked…

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