Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Editing on Wikipedia

Writing a story about Wikipedia? Why not open it up to Wikipedia editing?

CNet (via Media Orchard) has a story on Esquire's experiment with open editing. Writer A.J. Jacobs wrote a story about Wikipedia. He then inserted errors, to see if they'd be caught, and posted it on the site, promising that Esquire would print the before and after versions.

The result? The after is better than the before.

Compare the leads.

Before:
For those who haven't looked at Diderot's Encyclopedie recently, you should know that it is hopelessly incomplete. For instance, it lacks an entry on Exploding Whales. There's nothing on Troll Metal (rock music about goblins that eat Christians), autofellatio (a form of masturbation that be traced to the Egyptian creation myth) or Dr. Bombay (the physician warlock on Bewitched).

No, you can only find those entries in one encyclopedia: The Wikipedia, the free online Encyclopedia that was launched in 2001 and has become the biggest, most wide-ranging, most untamed reference work in history.
After:
What is the legal status of dwarf tossing? Did people really worship Jesus Christ's foreskin as a relic? Where was crushing by elephant used as an execution method? And who is the mysterious galactic ruler Xenu at the heart of Scientology?

You won't find the answers in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Only one place contains them all: Wikipedia. The free online encyclopedia has become the largest, most wide-ranging and most untamed reference work in history.
And compare the endings.

Before:
Wales's idea has become so powerful in fact, that it may not be too much to say that individual authors are in serious danger. Society is on the verge of reverting to the creative model of the middle ages, when the cathedrals were not the work of a medieval I.M. Pei, but were the result hundreds of anonymous people all laboring for a common anti-individualist cause.

Put it this way: In ten years, this article wouldn't have a byline.
After:
As more people turn to wiki communities for research, news and study, the idea of "individual authorship" could quickly become a thing of the past. Put it this way: the byline for this article may be as long as the text itself.
The article was edited 224 times in the first 24 hours after it was posted and 149 times in the next 24 hours.

The original article was 709 words, with 14 paragraphs. The final draft had 771 words, with 15 paragraphs.

And in between -- it got up to 857 words at one point -- is the real story, providing a look at the process Wikipedia entries take.

The biggest complaint I've heard from editors is that we should all be against wikis: They allow anyone to change facts willy-nilly, making the result untrustworthy. That kind of stuff should be left up to professionals.

The Wikipedians have a response:
Yes, vandalism is common on Wikipedia, but Wikipedia heals quickly. That's because it never forgets Â? there's a record of every change made to every page, making anything undoable. Ruffians are quickly repelled by Wikipedia's volunteers, who watch the real-time list of "Recent Changes" like hawks. In fact, IBM researchers found that most vandalism on Wikipedia was reverted in less than five minutes. If more chaos ensues, individuals can be blocked or pages can be locked down.
It's an interesting experiment, to say the least. And Wikipedia, though I wouldn't trust it enough to quote it in a newspaper, is often my first source when I'm looking for historical context or a research starting point.

5 Comments:

At 10:24 AM, October 04, 2005, Anonymous Martin said...

Wanted to amplify your last point there. I copyedit academic books for a living, and I check Wikipedia constantly. It's not always definitive, but there are just a million little things for which Wikipedia is the ideal starting point just to double check the accepted year of someone's birth, the spelling of a name, the actual position someone held in government, the capital of that country, etc. Basically it's a nuclear weapon for fact-checking.

 
At 1:29 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger Paul said...

I use wikipedia as a memory jog but always seek more authorative sources for confirmation.
Answers.com is also a useful memory jog.

 
At 8:28 AM, October 05, 2005, Blogger tom said...

Cool but wait: how many live news publications can wait 24 hours for their copy to be edited, and who makes the cuts? Do we wait another 24 hours to get headlines and decks?

One thing was interesting: the original lede was a classic "print" product, whereas the finished lede was something you'd see on TV. Print journalists have a taboo against question ledes but they're so common on TV that a "layman" would use one almost instinctively.

The biggest problem with Wikis is that they don't scale: A Wiki can work only if it has a small number of volunteers. If 10,000 show up and demand to participate, mob rules take over. This is precisely what happened to the Wikitorial the LA Times attempted. .

 
At 2:55 PM, October 05, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem lots of copy editors have with Wikipedia is not that someone will have gone in and deliberately changed information to make it wrong, but that it may have been posted by someone who thinks it is right, but it isn't. There are lots of times when someone is sure that a date or a spelling or a city is right, but it isn't. I'm with Martin and Paul -- it's great for double-checking or starting off, but I wouldn't rely on it alone.

 
At 9:46 PM, October 06, 2005, Blogger Nuclear Redaction said...

To add to the last comment, the real problem with Wikipedia isn't "vandalism" but errors introduced in the course of regular editing. Not only do we not know for certain that that name or date is correct; we don't know if crucial information has been omitted or other incorrect or apocryphal information has been introduced.

I use Wikipedia for general reference and, as others have said, as a starting point, but I would never use it as an authoritative source.

 

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