March 16, 2007

Wikipedia is an ATTRACTIVE NUISANCE, "Sinbad dead" edition

Yet another example of Wikipedia as an "attractive nuisance":

Wikipedia falsely reports comedian Sinbad's death

The St. Petersburg-based company, which describes itself as "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," leaves it to a vast user community to catch factual errors and other problems. Apparently, someone edited it to say Sinbad died of a heart attack. By the time the error was caught, e-mail links of the erroneous page had been forwarded to hundreds of people.

Importantly, note the vandalism was not fixed rapidly. It persisted long enough to spark the hoax. Now, it's not that hoaxes, even major media hoaxes, didn't exist before. But what's changed is how Wikipedia has made such attempts almost an off-the-shelf activity available to anonymous scammers, with only extremely weak, after the fact, safeguards.

We know what the Wikicultists will say - No responsibility must be attached to someone who lets a bunch of kindergartners run around with matches in a firecracker factory. "It happens sometimes. People just explode."

I can keep writing this, and it won't do any good: The fact that Wikipedia lends its full reputation (such as it is ...) to random trolls and vandals is different and dangerous. It is not a good reply to say that all damage it does is someone else's problem.

Bonus link: Tom Melly: Truths, half-truths and Wikipedia

... then, to return to an earlier question: who, and what, is Wikipedia for?

Well, it's for Ade in the office, who wanted to know what Catharism is. It's for Tim, who brushes up for pub quizzes. It's for my wife, who reads up on authors before going to her book club. It's for its editors, who take pleasure in the activity. It's for everyone who is absolutely, never, ever, going to attempt to do anything serious with the information it contains. Not because it's inaccurate, and not because the majority of articles are, to be frank, fairly amateurish, but because a resource for "facts" that generates its own references is an irretrievably flawed creation. It cannot evolve out of this problem, because evolution is the problem.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 16, 2007 01:07 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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And incidentally, this point and the point made by Melly is why Wikipedia should not be operating tax-exempt. Because it isn't providing a service that's any more useful to the government than, say, the somethingawful forums or any other online community. Perhaps at one time it was, but by now it's nothing more than a social experiment and entertainment.

Posted by: Alex J. Avriette at March 18, 2007 11:30 AM

The tax-exempt regulations aren't that strict - you can get charity status for social experiments.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 18, 2007 11:38 AM