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By Joel Klebanoff

What's with Wikis?

The Web is wonderful. It is liberty and democracy taken to the extreme, where everyone is free to contribute anything. The Web is horrible. It is liberty and democracy taken to the extreme, where everyone is free to contribute anything. Wikis prove my point.

For those of you not familiar with wikis, let's start with a definition. Where better to get that definition than what is among the most, if not the most popular wiki, Wikipedia, which can probably be best thought of as an open-source encyclopedia that accepts contributions from and edits by people—anyone with Internet access—from anywhere in the world. Wikipedia includes an entry that currently (but not necessarily in the future) defines a wiki as "a type of website that allows users to easily add and edit content and is especially suited for collaborative writing." So far so good. I'm all for making it easy to add and edit Web site content and participate in collaborative writing. That's mostly marvelous stuff. The concept of creative writing by committee doesn't exactly thrill me personally, but collaborative writing for the purpose of brainstorming or consolidating factual information from a number of sources sounds like an excellent idea to me. Jolly good! Keep up the great work.

Wikipedia goes on to explain that some wikis are private and require user authentication, but "Some wikis will allow completely unrestricted access so that people are able to contribute to the site without necessarily having to undergo a process of 'registration'." And "Generally, there is no review before modifications are accepted." Uh oh. I think I see a wee bit of a problem. For example, I wonder who wrote those words. Did the author have the slightest idea of what he or she was talking about? Who's to say?

If you go to the Wikipedia page titled "Who writes Wikipedia" you find that "The volunteer writers of articles in Wikipedia don't have to be experts or scholars (though some of them certainly are). They can be anyone, including you! Volunteers do not need to go through any formal process before creating an article or editing an existing article." Oh my. Oh my, oh my. This is bad. This is very, very bad.

What this means is I'm supposed to depend on something that anyone, anyone at all, can contribute to, even your Uncle Shmendrick. You know, your good old Uncle Shmendrick who, after 20 consecutive difficult years of school, during which he worked as hard as possible and cheated whenever he could get away with it, finally graduated from grade 9. That's the same Uncle Shmendrick who, after extensive personal research, has come to believe firmly in three fundamental truths: First, the moon is comprised mostly of guacamole, with some bread crumbs as filler and craft glue to hold it together. Second, the best thing that ever happened in the United States, the best thing that could ever happen in it, was having George Washington as its first president because that meant it wasn't necessary to change the name of the capital. And, third, Descartes (although Uncle Shmendrick has no idea that it was Descartes) was a complete idiot because he said, "I think, therefore I am," which must be wrong because your Uncle Shmendrick never thinks, yet he exists. At least, he has a gut feeling that he exists, but he's never really thought about it.

Your Uncle Shmendrick and everyone else equally ignorant about absolutely everything are perfectly free to contribute their own "facts" and to "correct" the wisdom entered by Rhodes Scholars, assuming any Rhodes Scholars are willing to devote some of their valuable time to writing in an online publication like Wikipedia that is not academically refereed. And I'm supposed to rely on what this unknown combination of geniuses and idiots has written? I don't think so.

Of course no one, no one in the world, would ever abuse the sacred privilege of expanding humankind's grand store of knowledge, now would they? Deep down in their heart of hearts, everyone is basically a fine, upstanding, honest, salt of the earth sort of human being, right? Horse feathers! "Horse feathers" aren't exactly the words I wanted to use here, but MC Press has me on a rather tight leash when it comes to my vocabulary. I'm told I'm incorrigible. I was ecstatic when I learned by trial and error that I'm allowed to use the word "hell" (but only in moderation), but George Carlin's seven words you can't use on television are definitely off-limits here. So use your imagination. What I'm trying to say is, there are definitely a few people, just one or two, of course, who might, just might, try to mess with your mind, not to mention mess with the truth, in a wiki because that's how they get their jollies. But that has to be rare because they'd really have to be the scum of the earth to do that, wouldn't they? You decide.

According to a February 9, 2006, article in The Washington Post, a few people have been busy rewriting history by going into Wikipedia and deleting factually accurate but unwanted (unwanted by the referenced people or their hangers on) descriptions of some past actions of members of Congress. A volunteer editor at Wikipedia wrote a program that traced the Internet addresses of the people who were making the less than honorable edits. Where did the trace lead? Was it to some scum of the earth? You be the judge. It led to the offices of the staff of the said members of Congress. Oh my. Oh my, oh my. Politicians and/or political aides were doing something that smacked of less than complete integrity? I can't believe it. I can't believe it for a second. What is this world coming to?

To be fair, it's not just politicos doing this. One congressman found a Wikipedia entry that said, I assume incorrectly, that he likes to beat his wife and children. Some propeller heads on the congressman's staff were able to trace the location where the entry was made to an Internet address in Omaha, but they couldn't pinpoint the person who entered it. What a fat lot of good that did. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that there is at least one representative of the Scum of the Earth Club in every city of any significant size everywhere in the world. What good does it do anyone to learn that Omaha is not an exception to the rule?

I really don't care what anybody writes in Wikipedia about politicians. That's not where I'm going to get my political information in any event. But it would be really nice if I could depend on Wikipedia as a ready source of factual information for my work-related research or personal interest. How can I do that if your Uncle Shmendrick or any blathering village idiot is perfectly free to supply text or alter the entries of Nobel Prize winners in order to make Wikipedia reflect said idiot's take on the universe? The answer is I can't.

If I'm asked to write a layman's article on particle physics, something that, like just about everything worth knowing, I know absolutely nothing about, I would like to be able to surf over to Wikipedia and read that "a quantum property of electrons, known as 'spin,' can be pointing in one of three directions, up, down, or toward Cleveland," and know that I can trust that information. As I said, I can't. And, by the way, what exactly would cause an electron to spin toward Cleveland anyway? Could it have something to do with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? How would I know? If anyone really did write something like that about electrons, I would likely become a trifle suspicious. Nonetheless, if they wrote something a little less ridiculous, but equally wrong, I wouldn't know the difference.

Oh well, I guess I'll have to do legitimate research when writing articles rather than depending on Wikipedia. I shouldn't complain. At least it gave me some good fodder for this week's tirade.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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