Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of Wikipedia

We all trust it more than we should. That conglomerate encyclopedia put together by altruistic experts and know-it-alls across cyberspace. Wiki has become a verb on the tip of everyone's tongue and a destination one click away from everyone's homepage. At its inception, Wikipedia was panned in academic circles as a spurious and unreliable source. Today, while still not a citable resource, many teachers and mentors accept its surprising level of utility and accuracy. Still, what's to stop any 14-year-old buffoon from stepping in and undoing the painstakingly cited work of that PhD in Vancouver?

We the plebeians of the Wikipedia world can only assume a complex series of checks and balances exist. Still, it's obvious from talking to various academics that Wikipedia is more accurate on some topics than others. In social issues, it can be laced with bias and controversy, with Wiki pages becoming veritable battlegrounds of editing and counter-editing. Of course, every now and then, something even less subtle than overt bias slips in...

One lovely Wednesday evening, Sandlot and I were discussing the latest episode of Glee. Why, she had pondered, was the Glee club referred to as "New Directions" while it was already called "Glee"? Well, I suggested, perhaps Glee was a type of club, and "New Directions" was its name. To solve this conundrum, I turned to the all-source of knowledge - Wikipedia. The veracity of my claims were quickly verified, as "Glee club" does indeed exist as a type of institution. However, as I reached the terminus of this thoughtfully composed though brief article, one line jumped off the page... "Glee clubs are gay."

Of course, because we're actually used to trusting Wikipedia, it took me a minute to process the meaning of these innocuous four words as a failure of my vaunted Internet tutor. I jammed the "print screen" key, not knowing how long the offending statement would remain unscathed.

After e-mailing my awesome find to the awesomest person I could think of, I linked another friend to the page in question with the "HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE THAT?" fervour of an automobile accident witness. My query was met with the "Did I see what?" stupor of a schizophrenic's best friend. I clicked the link I had just passed along, and I found the juvenile rip on Glee Clubs was... gone!

Okay, so Wikipedia does not completely fail, but who knows how long "Glee clubs are gay" was there before I hit the page. And more to the point, if such a blatantly miscreant statement could make it under the radar and onto the page long enough for me to see it (even if it was only there for a few minutes)... who knows what other misinformation we're taking for granted?

As one university prof put it, "The Internet is like a library maintained by drunkards."


NB: Mello was actually the friend who I linked the Wiki page to. After it became clear that the statement at the source of my amusement was no longer there, I sent her the above screenshot, which she accepted... and did not open.

Andy: I don't know why I bother sending you stuff. I should send it to people who will appreciate their brilliance.

Mello: =( I do open things sometimes!!!! =D

The file remains unopened to this day.


Michael said...

You can look at the history... It was removed 1 hour and 12 minutes after being placed in, which really is not too bad, for such an esoteric topic.

And plus, I'd like to point out that I am a lot more re-assured about Wikipedia than any other encyclopedias. In those ones - wrong facts often stay wrong until the next edition (which usually won't come out in a year).

Finally, one of the main reasons Wikipedia works is because it supports versioning. Nothing is ever "deleted"... if I put "Andy [last name] likes to sexually assault his female patients" for the University of Toronto Medical School article, it will forever be stored in history even after being deleted. =D

This is why reverting blatant vandalism tends to be trivial, just a click to go back to the previous version.

What PROFESSIONAL Wikipedia trolls do, however, is make 99.9% "good edits" (to build up a good reputation) and then throw in a bad (but ambiguous) fact here and there. Add a few weasel words like "Some say..." or "It is thought that..." and you're gold!

Even more devious are the redirect trolls. For a brief while in Wikipedia's history if you typed in "niggershit" you would be redirected to Barack Obama... o_o

Riona55 said...

I shall make more of an effort to open things from now on. muhaha!

So I told Yubin about how I never open things or click on links and this was her reaction

"You are so wierd Mello!!....(1 min later, after awkwardly staring at me)....just kidding"