Some First Thoughts on Wikipedia

Hi. Eugene introduced me earlier, and some of you may recognize my name from a recent comment thread or two. As Eugene mentioned, I work as a litigation attorney at a firm in New York City … and I first met him at a summer school mathematics program (which, I would like to remind him, we were carefully coached not to call “math camp”) thirty years ago.

I’ve been reading the Conspiracy faithfully for five or six years now, and recently I’ve noticed Eugene’s series of posts about court decisions that discuss or mention Wikipedia, the free-content, mass-written, ever-growing online encyclopedia. I’ve also noticed that in unrelated posts and comments, many Conspirators routinely link to relevant Wikipedia articles and seem to operate from the basic assumption that they will generally be factually accurate. So I infer that there is at least some respect for Wikipedia among some Conspirators. At the same time, I saw the comments on the thread where Eugene introduced me this afternoon, so I know there is some skepticism too.

Eugene’s posts, and everyone’s comments, have interested me because I’ve contributed to Wikipedia myself, and I’m an administrator on the site and a member of the in-house Arbitration Committee. (Wikipedians may edit under pseudonyms, and until this point I hadn’t mentioned my real name on-wiki, although a determined critic managed to “out” my real identity about a year ago. For anyone curious, on Wikipedia I’m known as Newyorkbrad, Brad being my middle name.)

I hope to do two things this week. First, to explain to Conspirators a little more about how Wikipedia operates and address a couple of aspects that may not have occurred to casual readers. (I might even recruit a couple of new Wikipedia contributors — but in fairness, I’m going to link to a couple of criticism sites as well, so you’ll know what you might be getting into.) And second, I hope to gather input on some important issues from contributors here who will have an intelligent reader’s familiarity with the site, but no predisposition in our internal, sometimes eternal, debates.

Anyone who has spent time on the Internet has heard about Wikipedia by now and has at least some knowledge of how it works. But here are some basics for those less familiar, which the rest of you can safely skip and go on to the end or come back tomorrow.

Wikipedia defines itself as “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” That is literally true: anyone (short of a few sitebanned people) with an Internet connection can sit down at the keyboard and start editing. The “anyone” who can edit includes you, if you are so inclined; you don’t even need to register an account in order to edit an existing article, though you do in order to create a new article from scratch.

For my part, I was drawn in as many others are: I ran a Google search to locate some information, and the Wikipedia article was the top result. I saw a mistake in an article and corrected it. (The double brackets are internal wikicode for a link to another page, and I’ll use that code here as well.) Interestingly, my introduction to a flaw of the wiki collaborative editing model came a short while later later, when someone took the correction I made and immediately uncorrected it. Fortunately, when I made the change a second time, I figured out how to provide a more detailed explanation in the “edit summary” field, and this time it stuck. If I’d been reverted one more time, I probably would have shaken my head and walked away, as subject-matter experts, unfortunately, often do. But instead, having made one change led me to want to make others, and then I registered to start creating pages, and it became a hobby.

Wikipedia has existed for less than eight years, and its growth and popularity have far exceeded anything that those who created it could possibly have imagined. Today, there are millions of registered “editors” with accounts, although there are probably a few thousand truly dedicated everyday contributors, and there are close to three million articles. Content can be found on virtually every subject one might wish to write about: from Poe and poetry to pomegranites and Pokemon; from Poland and Portugal to Powell and Posner; from Pol Pot and Potsdam to polarity and pottery. (Of these, there may be a disproportionate amount of Pokemon; editors come from an enormous diversity of background but have historically skewed younger, for fairly obvious reasons.)

There are Wikipedias in several hundred languages, of which English is the largest (German is second), and there are also Wiktionary and Wikinews and a Wikiversity and Wikiquote and Wikisource, and Commons (a repository for image and sound files that can be used by all the projects) and Meta (for coordination). All of this is operated under the auspices of the Wikimedia Foundation, a charitable foundation that owns the hardware and is, theoretically at least, in charge of it all. But my involvement with the English Wikipedia is probably enough for one lifetime.

So why does this matter? One reason is that a lot of people find that editing, or even administering the site, is fun. That is is essential, as virtually everyone involved is a volunteer. Another is the satisfaction of contributing to an ever-growing source of “free knowledge.” In addition to being “the encyclopedia that everyone can edit,” Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia,” whose content can freely be reproduced on other websites or in other media. (This actually happens. One of my first articles was a short biography of a lawyer in Alabama who became a judge in Puerto Rico, named Peter J. Hamilton. It turns out that there is a Peter J. Hamilton Elementary School in Mobile, whose website has a “did you ever wonder who Peter J. Hamilton was?” page, and the answer turns out to be my article.)

But there is another major reason that a lot of people care about Wikipedia, whether they participate themselves in it or not, and why there are many critics concerned about the increasingly widespread role of the site. Because of its popularity and also because of its interconnected network of links, Wikipedia articles tend to score extremely high on Google and other Internet searches. In particular, if one searches on an individual’s name, his or her Wikipedia article will generally be among the top group of Google hits — much of the time the very first one. This has implications that are quite significant and in many instances troubling, which I will be discussing over the next couple of days.

That’s long enough for an introductory post; I’m sure many are waiting for me to reach something more controversial. Over the next few days I’m going to explore some specific issues, beginning tomorrow with the question of how Wikipedia articles about living people can affect their subjects, and continuing later in the week with issues of site governance and article quality, behavioral standards and the role of anonymity.

The comments thread should be open, and I’d welcome suggestions for aspects I might address. (I make only one request: that regular Wikipedians who are looking over my shoulder, as well as Wikipedia critics from Wikipedia Review and elsewhere, bear in mind that this is a general-interest audience. Please don’t hijack the comment threads with our own internal disputes and debates. No one here wants to read who is a sockpuppet of whom or whether so-and-so’s block was fair or not. We have ANI and Wikipedia Review to hash those things out later.)

And one last unrelated request. A couple of weeks ago, [[Saxbe fix]] was the day’s featured article, meaning it had pride of place on the main page for a day. I hadn’t contributed to the article before, but I did some copyediting while it was mainpaged, and in doing so, I came across the assertion that President Reagan nominated Robert Bork rather than Orrin Hatch to the Supreme Court because Hatch’s appointment would have raised an emoluments clause issue and the administration was not convinced that the Saxbe fix is constitutional. Although I had a dim recollection of the issue having come up in passing, I found that statement as written implausible and edited the article to say that this issue played only a small role in Judge Bork’s selection. However, I didn’t have a good source suitable for citation in the article to support my assertion, and I’ve been asked for one. This certainly would seem like an appropriate audience to fill in that particular lacuna. So if anyone can help with a source on this, please let me know in in the comments thread so I can go back and add it to the article.

Or better still, go visit [[Saxbe fix]] and edit it yourself.

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