The responsibility of Wikipedia in the wider world

Jim Redmond has a post on his blog that almost read my mind, called One thing that Wikipedians often overlook: not everybody gets it:

Most non-Wikipedians still don’t get how Wikipedia works; they still think that its content is centrally controlled.

This is part of the reason this week we saw the SMH report More woes for Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, about Jeff Merkey’s claims of “cash for kindness” or donations for Wikipedia article editorial favours.

When Wikipedia was small and ranked on the 10th page of Google results or worse, it didn’t matter so much if a person’s Wikipedia article was full of nonsense. But when your Wikipedia article can rank higher than your official site, you have a problem. That’s the major reason for the English Wikipedia policy, Biographies of living people. I really recommend having a look at it, even if you’re familiar with the acronym.

Biographies of living persons (BLPs) must be written conservatively, with regard for the subject’s privacy. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not a tabloid; it is not our job to be sensationalist, or to be the primary vehicle for the spread of titillating claims about people’s lives. An important rule of thumb when writing biographical material about living persons is “do no harm”.

Jimmy Wales has made it clear repeatedly that Zero information is preferred to misleading or false information.

And that is why you might blank a poorly written article about a controversial figure.

It may be hoping too much to ask the general public or the media to understand the purpose and process of OTRS, but it is worth noting that it is a private method of complaining about one’s article. It’s a selection of trusted volunteer editors working together with WMF staff and board (when appropriate) to answer the questions of those who can’t or won’t use a wiki talk page, but can use email.

It is, quite frankly, thankless and largely invisible work. If disputes are resolved successfully, you’ll never hear about it.

As the figurehead for Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is often approached or written to personally, by people that should actually be writing to OTRS, but the process is too esoteric to figure out. It’s rather like contacting Rupert Murdoch to complain about an article by a staff writer in some random NewsCorp paper, except that Wales takes it on himself to be involved in this resolution process, rather than palming it off to a secretary.

So in blanking Merkey’s article, Wales was actually following the single most ethically serious policy Wikipedia has, showing that Wikipedia is not an anarchy or a free-(libel)-for-all, but a project that takes the responsibility of high web visibility seriously and tries to minimise the negative impact it has on people’s lives.

And while Wales was acting to minimise the harm Wikipedia causes in other people’s lives, the news media shows that when there’s a whiff of controversy, that idea doesn’t apply.

If you had even the vaguest idea about how Wikipedia works, you would surely reject out-of-hand as unlikely if not ridiculous, the idea that Wales would offer editorial favours in exchange for donations. Because he better than anybody knows how impossible that is. The whole article history is right THERE.

But if Wikipedia is just a big black box that somehow produces timely articles, then it is not an unreasonable idea.

Ultimately, recent new stories say to me that while Wikipedia has developed responsible processes over the past couple of years, it has done an extremely poor job at communicating their existence to the outside world. So it’s not enough to be big; we really do have to try and get everyone involved. Only by being a part of it, and understanding how it works, will people know enough to be able to dismiss nonsense claims when they see them.

If Wikipedia was a type of travel, at the moment it’s somewhere between a rocket and a aeroplane, in terms of accessibility and participation and general understanding of how it works. There’s still too much that’s mysterious and seemingly random and magical.
Reading and editing Wikipedia needs to be as familiar as riding a bicycle. Almost everyone can do it, with a few hours practice and maybe some training wheels. No special test or license. You can go anywhere. That’s what Wikipedia needs to be like.

14 March, 2008 • , ,

Comment

1

Agreed. The media is really grasping at straws here.

Aaron S. · 14. March 2008, 01:29

2

I keep running into people that don’t even know what Wikipedia IS, much less how it works. Top 10 website or not.

Lar · 14. March 2008, 11:12

3

You seem deluded.

There are numerous examples of real people who have been harmed by Wikipedia (Daniel Brandt, Taner Akcam, Ryan Jordan, etc.), and in many cases, they followed every “rule” or “procedure” to minimize the damage, and it not only didn’t help — Wikipedia made their lives worse.

It says on Wikipedia that I “gave misleading information to journalists”. When I politely asked for evidence of this claim, I was “community banned” for even being on Wikipedia.

Gregory Kohs · 14. March 2008, 12:30

4

Greg, I didn’t make any claims about the processes’ effectiveness, only their existence.

pfctdayelise · 14. March 2008, 14:45

5

Trying to correct a BLP on Wikipedia is nothing short of a nightmare.

Moulton · 14. March 2008, 23:29

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