Buck Up

By Erik Roseman

ELSA, TX: Anglo-Saxon papaya speculators of the early 1900s killed every newborn son and daughter in their desperate search for a Mexican messiah. Finally, one baby turned into a giant yellow jacket and killed the Anglos. Or so the legend goes. The legend goes that way because, for five months, Wikipedia said so.

Well over three hundred thousand people once inhabited the Island of Porchess, situated off the coast of Syria. Unfortunately, their Lebanese-governed, Sunni Muslim island existed for no longer than the ten months that Wikipedia said so. Former USA TODAY writer John Seigenthaler was alarmed one day to learn that, for four months, he had been implicated in the assassinations both of Robert and John Kennedy, because Wikipedia said so. Last March, the comedian Sinbad heard exaggerated reports of his own death when grieved friends and fans began to call in with regrets. His entry in Wikipedia gained an average of over 18,000 visits per day for the rest of the month, and Sinbad was dead, of course, because Wikipedia said so.

To cite Wikipedia as a source of information is to make as vacuous a statement as modern technology can afford. Even the odd blog’s Wikipedia hyperlink belies the scribe’s guise of any savvy or research acumen. One such little link dashes a hole in the rhetorical vessel that drains his precious ethos into a chaotic cybersea of suspect anonymity. References are meant to represent an honorable and rightly respected way to pass the buck. The goal is to reinforce assertions by saying someone said so. Clearly, that would be someone on par with or surpassing the claimant’s own authority and, ideally, his integrity as well.  The hodgepodge of who-knows-whos who undergird Wikipedia manifest a collective void in those virtues as baffling as the surge of servile, obsequious praise pop culture offers the Web’s most prolific gossip rag.

When giddy whispers of revolution fill the air, temptation can bear down upon scholars to stoop for applause, and sensation always moves the media to gush. The perfunctory experiment of editing Wikipedia does suggest, to the untrained eye, marvelous possibilities of peerless peer review.  It’s true that a casual visit to some random article, to add a ridiculous error, will meet with speedy deletion. However, with half a brain and no conscience any ne’er-do-well can wreak havoc with the infolemmings proposing to guard Wikipedia from “vandalism,” as malfeasant editing is called. A visiting editor’s street value around the site is first determined by whether his user name establishes a record of helpful, or at least apparently benign, contributions to an article. It’s also helpful to rack up extra respect if he petulantly argues trifling points on an article’s discussion page or two. What people often do to pad their statistics is to enlist friends or configure bot software to automatically make astronomical numbers of grammar corrections and the like to pages the user never bothered himself to read. If he salts this record with a few meatier edits and "stubs," new articles that one starts without putting much substantive info in them, he looks like a champ.

Golden gurudom accrues primarily through the sheer volume of contributions that pile up under that editor’s user name. With a few thousand notches on the hilt, he can ultimately ask an Administrator, merely someone else who did the same thing before him, to request that “the community” knight his own user name with Administrator status, too. Our half-brained, no-conscience ne’er-do-well now swaggers through the world of Wikipedia with a degree of status tantamount to what years of scholarship (however stilted) and money (however wasted) earn the Master or Doctor, prerequisite to accessing a real, peer reviewed publication. A visit to the user page of the average Wikipedia Administrator tends to reveal that he’s been involved with the site for only a matter of months, maybe a couple years. Wikipedia itself has existed but seven years, barely long enough earn its own doctorate. Online photos of Wikipedia editor conventions, by the way, betray that the human faces behind more than a few of the very most impressive and scholar-ish Administrator pages still sport acne and muster barely more than Scooby Doo goatees, if sagely facial hair is attempted.

Administrator status is advanced foolery and entirely unnecessary for doing monumental damage. A user name's perceived equity from maybe a three-week investment could persuade other editors to assume he knows what he’s talking about. By that time anybody can graduate to spinning his own crochets of deceit and infecting countless articles with subtle errors of bias. Should a misjudgment of tact get him caught, he has options. He can enlist friends, who shall pretend they don't know him, to take up his cause on the discussion pages (the term for these users is "meat puppets"); he can maintain a few spare user names ("sock puppets") and then stage ongoing debates between them and any of his befuddled interrogators; or he can simply disappear and start a new user name. Sock puppets are relatively easy to catch if a puppeteer doesn't log in from significantly different IP addresses, but meat puppets are hard to detect. All of this is wildly dishonest, remarkably easy to do, and probably legal—a lethal mix.

The odds any error gets caught, or any truth contested, rely heavily on a given article's popularity and how controversial may be the subject. Some lonely stub about, say, the first plywood-scented candle (I'm trying to think of something mundane and uninteresting, but you never know) might garner few enough cyber-stewards that the article’s creative editors can fly happily along below-radar. On the other hand, imagine a boldly outspoken, tenacious, outrageous, effective, and independent organization that prods intransigent higher education cartels to fix fatal flaws in what ideogogues insist already runs smoothly. Edit an article like that and you will taste a firestorm of pubescent indignation from every English corner of the wired West. The scrutiny the NAS Wikipedia entry endured doesn't accurately represent the typical efficiency of Wikipedia's "peer review," but merely the eagerness of Wiki-oids to police organizations suspected of conservative tendencies. Compare the level of stringent documentation to which users nailed Ashley Thorne, an editor of the NAS article, to that for an article covering something somewhat less controversial, like maybe ping pong. That entry sports but ten alleged sources, documenting a pittance of the informative deluge the page neatly spews. Again, witness how low the standard of review proved to run when a Wikipedia editor seized the opportunity to misrepresent FIRE. 

So much for Wikipedia’s authority. Let’s visit its integrity. Wikipedia feigns a nod at peer review with its foundational “no original research” rule, which can be enforced only as strictly and objectively as Manhattan's jaywalking laws. If I want to edit an article on the site, I am supposed to be allowed only to write what I’ve already read; if I learned anything about my subject through first-hand experience, I'm theoretically forbidden to put it on Wikipedia because it has to have been published first. This is a noble standard, so where’s the problem? When I was a kid, a family friend told me her job at National Geographic was to find three sources for every statement the writers made. That was the first time I had encountered the issue of media accountability, and I was impressed. I’d guess an institution like World Book leans a little more on the credentials of its contributors, but both are publications whose participants and administrators display solid general intent to operate in a spirit of honesty.

Sure, you'll find exceptions when you dig through either one. The 1947 World Book Encyclopedia that I keep instead of an Internet connection in my off-campus apartment (an isle of refuge from giant yellow jackets) has its share of lovable but empty gestures at objective reliability, especially in entries patriotic or geopolitical. In Wikipedia, however, what you have to dig for is an article that’s entirely honest, that really treats the site's ostensible research mandate seriously. If one is found, it is the exception; the bulk of Wikipedia comes from people who disregard Wikipedia's research rules either because they want to or just don’t know better. Dual spirits of dishonesty through willful transgression and ignorance through simple negligence thus thoroughly permeate “the project." Wikipedia's phenomenal growth owes more to non-cooperation with its own fundamental rules than any other supposedly revolutionary feature of its appeal. Bad-faith enterprise that it is, even when Wikipedia serves up edible food, we’re left to eat it from a dirty plate.

How does Wikipedia itself soar freely beneath the Academy’s radar? Perhaps in the same way Friedrich Engels did—on the wings of a broad, ad hominem assault against the only group in the position to publicly cry foul. While a very special few may heed an alarm such as sounded by someone like me—a lowly undergraduate—it is in fact to the intellectual “elite,” the truly lettered scholars of the world, that most of us turn for a reasoned evaluation of academic trends. As soon as some brave professor or institution dares denounce the machine, though, Wikipedia true-believers roundly dismiss this voice as just desperate collusion by the edu-hegemony to guard its ironclad corner on the market of knowledge. “Knowledge to the people!” rings the slogan, and a vast collective of dubious information amasses, collated and scoured by “the people,” the most tenacious and obsessive of web surfers, the least-common-denominator.

I doubt the whole story of human scholarship will end as a tragedy of the commons, but Wikipedia does deserve more outspoken and erudite skepticism than it has received so far. It works well as a kind of search engine, so long as it’s an initial way station from which to turn quickly toward more respectable sites and publications. Wikipedia is unreliable and its founding organization, reluctantly, agrees. Spokeswoman Sandra Ordonez admitted to Inside Higher Ed that Wikipedia “is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources.” The site is a great toy but a laughable reference tool, and citing Wikipedia passes the buck way down, not up.

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