Just don’t, okay?

Just because you can edit Wikipedia doesn’t mean you should.

I’ve merely dabbled. Added references to things where I knew of them, mostly. Added text on things where I knew for definite that relevant information was missing, and where I could cite a source. A couple of times I’ve added photos of a subject that I had handy.

And I’ve added those articles to my Watch List, so I can keep track of how they change subsequently.

Often there are smart, informed people coming in and doing as I do — adding useful information where they have firm knowledge, gradually refining what’s there.

And then there’s the idiots. The clowns who think Wikipedia is their playground.

It’s not even intelligent vandalism. They’ll come in and add a reference to themselves or their friends because they think they should be famous. They’ll put in some stupid joke reference to someone. Much of the time these things are easy to spot because they’re badly spelt. Sometimes they’ll come in and chop a huge chunk of text out of an article.

Or in other cases people will put something in that they think is right, based on some half-remembered fact, which is actually wrong and there’s no evidence to back it up.

Then people like me come in and undo the change.

What amazes me is that in this day and age, Wikipedia still accepts anonymous changes to most of its articles. I can’t help but think it wouldn’t be quite as common if it at least required people to create a logon first, and it was easier to track which logons were responsible for what.

One thing they are apparently planning to do is colour-code text based on how “trustworthy” it is, based on who has contributed it and how long it’s been in the article. I can see that may well help for readers to see what’s reliable, what’s half-arsed conjecture, and what’s total crap.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

8 replies on “Just don’t, okay?”

What I’ve thought they should do for a while is have trusted editors (they don’t need to be full-blown wikipedia editors, but people who’ve left a lot of good postings) and have an option for each page to “go to the most recent trusted revision” (which could also be set as a default for each user). There could be another level for peer-reviewing by experts in each field (especially for science-y and other such articles) and an option to “go to the most recent peer-reviewed revision.”

At uni, almost no one will accept Wikipedia as a source, even though it often has very good reference information (the trick is to mine Wikipedia for sources, which can be used). Still, Wikipedia would improve its standing with both its doubters (of which there are many) and its fans (of which there are many more) if there was more apparent oversight. I know it was founded to be open, but it’s grown to a size where it could use a bit more stringent editing. This is not to say that open editing shouldn’t be allowed—it certainly should—but there should be a way for users to easily access a recent version which has had at least some oversight.

It’s not a knock on the editors, either; they do an admirable job. It’s just that I know a whole lot of people who are very skeptical of Wikipedia because of its current editorial structure, and a few tweaks could make it much more palatable to more people, without losing its original backbone.

Anyone who actually relies on Wikipedia for factual information does so at their own peril. Not just because of the vandalism, but because many people don’t understand the definition of primary or secondary sources. It really is a very poor excuse for an “encyclopaedia”, and I agree that users should at minimum be registered to make changes.

I have even seen the odd academic cite Wikipedia in their presentations, and for a scientist to do so will usually result in a diminution of respect from their peers. It’s not snobbery, just an acknowledgement of the fluid and unreliable nature of this resource.

You bring up an excellent point with the relatively easy nature by which one can alter entries in Wikipedia. One of the more concerning aspects of this is the way in which various people or groups use it to remove information which may not be so flattering from various articles. An example is Wikipedia banning the Church of Scientology in May of this year from editing any articles relating to it. This can be used for political or other reasons.
Regardless of that, I still use Wikipedia quite frequently, though I’ll be a tad more skeptical of it.

Broadening this out from Wikipedia for a moment, some months ago I overheard a snatch of conversation which included the following deeply disturbing assertion:

“It’s definitely true. It was on the Internet”!

I found an enrty for a local school, (presumably put there by a disgruntled student) accusing the principal of drug running in some very expletive laden language. I though that Wikipedia should have policed these type of entries themselves, but after a week or so, I removed the offending passage myself. Fortunately the idiot who put the entry there in tehe first place has not come back.

The articles on high schools can be quite amusing if you look in the history – most of them get vandalised with that kind of stuff constantly!

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