The Six Sins of the Wikipedia

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

(The author was among the first contributors to Nupedia, the Wikipedia's peer-reviewed predecessor,

and spent six years, on and off, studying the Wikipedia)

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It is a question of time before the Wikipedia self-destructs and implodes. It poses such low barriers to entry (anyone can edit any number of its articles) that it is already attracting masses of teenagers as "contributors" and "editors", not to mention the less savory flotsam and jetsam of cyber-life. People who are regularly excluded or at least moderated in every other Internet community are welcomed, no questions asked, by this wannabe self-styled "encyclopedia"

Six cardinal (and, in the long-term, deadly) sins plague this online venture. What unites and underlies all its deficiencies is simple: Wikipedia dissembles about what it is and how it operates. It is a self-righteous confabulation and its success in deceiving the many attests not only to the gullibility of the vast majority of Netizens but to the PR savvy of its sleek and slick operators.

1. The Wikipedia is opaque and encourages recklessness

The overwhelming majority of contributors to and editors of the Wikipedia remain anonymous throughout the process. Anyone can register and members' screen-names (handles) mean nothing and lead nowhere. Thus, no one is forced to take responsibility for what he or she adds to the "encyclopedia" or subtracts from it.

This amounts to an impenetrable smokescreen: identities can rarely be established and evading the legal consequences of one's actions or omissions is easy. As the exposure of the confabulated professional biography of Wikipedia Arbitrator Essjay in March 2007 demonstrates, some prominent editors and senior administrators probably claim fake credentials as well.

Everything in the Wikipedia can be and frequently is edited, re-written and erased and this includes the talk pages and even, to my utter amazement, in some cases, the history pages! In other words, one cannot gain an impartial view of the editorial process by sifting through the talk and history pages of articles (most of which are typically monopolized by fiercely territorial "editors"). History, not unlike in certain authoritarian regimes, is being constantly re-jigged on the Wikipedia!

2. The Wikipedia is anarchic, not democratic

The Wikipedia is not an experiment in online democracy, but a form of pernicious anarchy. It espouses two misconceptions: (a) That chaos can and does lead to the generation of artifacts with lasting value and (b) That knowledge is an emergent, mass phenomenon. But The Wikipedia is not conducive to the unfettered exchange of information and opinion that is a prerequisite to both (a) and (b). It is a war zone where many fear to tread. the Wikipedia is a negative filter (see the next point).

3. The Might is Right Editorial Principle

Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one's status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.

The result is erratic editing. Many entries are completely re-written (not to say vandalized) with the arrival of new kids on the Wikipedia block. Contrary to advertently-fostered impressions, the Wikipedia is not a cumulative process. Its text goes through dizzyingly rapid and oft-repeated cycles of destruction and the initial contributions are at times far deeper and more comprehensive than later, "edited", editions of same.

Wikipedia is misrepresented as an open source endeavor. Nothing can be further from the truth. Open source efforts, such as Linux, involve a group of last-instance decision-makers that coordinate, vet, and cull the flow of suggestions, improvements, criticism, and offers from the public. Open source communities are hierarchical, not stochastic.

Moreover, it is far easier to evaluate the quality of a given snippet of software code than it is to judge the truth-content of an edit to an article, especially if it deals with "soft" and "fuzzy" topics, which involve the weighing of opinions and the well-informed exercise of value judgments.

4. Wikipedia is against real knowledge

The Wikipedia's ethos is malignantly anti-elitist. Experts are scorned and rebuffed, attacked, and abused with official sanction and blessing. Since everyone is assumed to be equally qualified to edit and contribute, no one is entitled to a privileged position by virtue of scholarship, academic credentials, or even life experience.

The Wikipedia is the epitome and the reification of an ominous trend: Internet surfing came to replace research, online eclecticism supplanted scholarship, and trivia passes for erudition. Everyone's an instant scholar. If you know how to use a search engine, you are an authority.

Recently, on a discussion list dedicated to books with a largely academic membership, I pointed out an error in one of the Wikipedia's articles. The responses I received were chilling. One member told me that he uses the Wikipedia to get a rough idea about topics that are not worth the time needed to visit the library. Whether the rough ideas he was provided with courtesy the Wikipedia were correct or counterfactual seemed not to matter to him. Others expressed a mystical belief in the veracity of "knowledge" assembled by the masses of anonymous contributors to the Wikipedia. Everyone professed to prefer the content proffered by the Wikipedia to the information afforded by the Britannica Encyclopedia or by established experts!

Two members attempted to disproved my assertion (regarding the error in the Wikipedia) by pointing to a haphazard selection of links to a variety of Internet sources. Not one of them referred to a reputable authority on the subject, yet, based largely on the Wikipedia and a sporadic trip in cyberspace, they felt sufficiently confident to challenge my observation (which is supported by virtually all the leading luminaries in the field).

These gut reactions mirror the Wikipedia's "editorial" process. To the best of my knowledge, none of my respondents was qualified to comment. None of them holds a relevant academic degree. Neither do I. But I strove to stand on the shoulders of giants when I spotted the error while my respondents explicitly and proudly refused to do so as a matter of principle!

This may reflect the difference in academic traditions between the United States and the rest of the world. Members of individualistic, self-reliant and narcissistic societies inevitably rebel against authority and tend to believe in their own omnipotence and omniscience. Conversely, the denizens of more collectivist and consensus-seeking cultures, are less sanguine and grandiose and more willing to accept teachings ex-cathedra. So said Theodore Millon, a great scholar and an undisputed authority on personality disorders.

5. Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia

Truth in advertising is not the Wikipedia's strong suit. It presents itself, egregiously, as an encyclopedia. Yet, at best it is a community of users who exchange eclectic "information" on a regular and semi-structured basis. This deliberate misrepresentation snags most occasional visitors who are not acquainted with the arcane ways of the Wikipedia and trust it implicitly and explicitly to deliver facts and well-founded opinions.

There is a lot the Wikipedia can do to dispel such dangerous misconceptions (for instance, it could post disclaimers on all its articles and not only on a few selected pages). That it chooses to propagate the deception is telling and renders it the equivalent of an intellectual scam, a colossal act of con-artistry.

The Wikipedia thus retards genuine learning by serving as the path of least resistance and as a substitute to the real thing: edited, peer-reviewed works of reference. High school and university students now make the Wikipedia not only their first but their exclusive "research" destination.

Moreover, the Wikipedia's content is often reproduced on thousands of other Website WITHOUT any of its disclaimers and without attribution or identification of the source. The other day I visited and clicked on its "free encyclopedia". It is a mirror of the Wikipedia, but without anything to indicate that it is not a true, authoritative, peer-reviewed encyclopedia. The origin of the articles - Wikipedia - was not indicated anywhere.

It could have been different.

Consider, for instance the online and free Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Each entry is written by an expert but is frequently revised based on input from members of the public. It combines the best elements of the Wikipedia (feedback-driven evolution) with none of its deficiencies.

6. The Wikipedia is rife with libel and violations of copyrights

As recent events clearly demonstrate, the Wikipedia is a hotbed of slander and libel. It is regularly manipulated by interns, political staffers, public relations consultants, marketing personnel, special interest groups, political parties, business firms, brand managers, and others with an axe to grind. It serves as a platform for settling personal accounts, defaming, distorting the truth, and re-writing history.

Less known is the fact that the Wikipedia is potentially and arguably the greatest single repository of copyright infringements. A study conducted in 2006 put the number of completely plagiarized articles at 1% of the total - a whopping 15,000 in all. Books - from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, through David Irving's controversial work, down to my own, far humbler, tomes - are regularly ripped off and sizable chunks are posted in various articles, with and without attribution. The Wikipedia resembles P2P (peer-to-peer) networks such as the first incarnation of Napster: it allows users to illegally share pirated content using an application (Wiki) and a central Website (the Wikipedia).

The Wikipedia does not provide any effective mechanism to redress wrongs, address problems, and remedy libel and copyright infringements. Editing the offending articles is useless as these are often "reverted" (restored) by the offenders themselves.

My personal experience is that correspondence with and complaints to Wikimedia and to Jimmy Wales go unanswered or stonewalled by a variety of minions. Even when (rarely) the offending content is removed from the body of an article it remains available in its history pages.

The Wikipedia has been legally shielded from litigation because, hitherto, it enjoyed the same status that Bulletin Boards Services (BBS) and other, free for all, communities have. In short: where no editorial oversight is exerted, no legal liability arises to the host even in cases of proven libel and breaches of copyright.

But the Wikipedia has been treading a thin line here as well. Anyone who ever tried to contribute to this "encyclopedia" discovered soon enough that it is micromanaged by a cabal of c. 1000 administrators (not to mention the Wikimedia's full-time staff, fuelled by 2 million US dollars in public donations). These senior editors regularly interfere in the contents of articles. They do so often without any rhyme or reason and on a whim (hence the anarchy) - but edit they do.

This fact and recent statements by Wales to the effect that the Wikipedia is actually regularly edited may provoke victims of the Wikipedia into considering class action lawsuits against the Wikimedia, Jimmy Wales personally, and their Web hosting company.

The Wikipedia is an edited publication. The New-York Times is responsible for anything it publishes in its op-ed section. Radio stations pay fines for airing obscenities in call-in shows. Why treat the Wikipedia any differently? Perhaps, hit in the wallet, it will develop the minimal norms of responsibility and truthfulness that are routinely expected of less presumptuous and more inconspicuous undertakings on the Internet.

Addendum - Google-Wikipedia-MySpace - How Teenagers Hijacked the Internet

A recent (late 2006) study by Heather Hopkins from Hitwise demonstrates the existence of a pernicious feedback loop between Google, Wikipedia, MySpace, and Blogspot. Wikipedia gets 54% of its traffic from Google search results. The majority of Wikipedia visitors then proceed to MySpace or Blogspot, both of which use Google as their search service and serve Google-generated advertisements.

Google has changed its search algorithm in late 2005-early 2006. I have been monitoring 154 keywords on Google since 1999. Of these, the number one (#1) search result in 128 keywords is now a Wikipedia article. More than a quarter (38 out of 128) of these "articles" are what the Wikipedia calls "stubs" (one or two sentences to be expanded by Wikipedians in the future). Between 7 and 10 of the articles that made it to the much-coveted number one spot are ... empty pages, placeholders, yet to be written!

This is Google's policy now: Wikipedia articles regardless of their length or quality or even mere existence are placed by Google's algorithm high up in the search results. Google even makes a Wikipedia search engine available to Webmasters for their Websites. The relationship between Google and Wikipedia is clearly intimate and mutually-reinforcing.

Google's new algorithm, codenamed Big Daddy, still calculates the popularity of Websites by counting incoming links. An incoming link is a link to a given Website placed on an unrelated page somewhere on the Web. The more numerous such links - the higher the placement in Google's search results pages. To avoid spamming and link farms, Google now rates the quality of "good and bad Internet neighborhoods". Not all incoming links are treated equally. Some Internet properties are shunned. Links from such "bad" Websites actually contribute negatively to the overall score.

The top results in all 154 keywords I have been diligently monitoring since 1999 have changed dramatically since April 2006. The only common thread in all these upheavals is one: the more incoming links from MySpace a Website has - the higher it is placed in the search results.

In other words: if Website A has 700 incoming links from 700 different Websites and website B has 700 incoming links, all of them from various pages on MySpace, Website B is ranked (much) higher in the search results. This holds true even when both Websites A and B sport the same PageRank. This holds true even if the bulk of Website A's incoming links come from "good properties" in "good Internet neighborhoods". Incoming links from MySpace trump every other category of incoming links.

An unsettling pattern emerges:

Wikipedia, the "encyclopedia" whose "editors" are mostly unqualified teenagers and young adults is touted by Google as an authoritative source of information. In search results, it is placed well ahead of sources of veritable information such as universities, government institutions, the home pages of recognized experts, the online full-text content of peer-reviewed professional and scholarly publications, real encyclopedias (such as the Encarta), and so on.

MySpace whose 110 million users are predominantly prepubescent and adolescents now dictates what Websites will occupy the first search results in Google's search results pages. It is very easy to spam MySpace. It is considered by some experts to be a vast storehouse of link farms masquerading as "social networks".

Google has vested, though unofficial and unannounced and, therefore, undisclosed interests in both Wikipedia and MySpace. Wikipedia visitors end up on various properties whose search and ad placement technologies are Google's and Wikipedia would have shriveled into insignificance had it not been to Google's relentless promotion of its content.

Can Teenagers Contribute to an Encyclopedia?

The truth is that teenagers cannot do the referencing and research that are the prerequisite to serious scholarship - unless you stretch these words to an absurd limit. Research is not about hoarding facts. It is about identifying and applying context and about possessing a synoptic view of ostensibly unrelated data.

Moreover, teenagers can't tell hype from fact and fad from fixture. They lack the perspectives that life and learning -structured, frontal, hierarchical learning - bring with them.

Knowledge is not another democratic institution. It is hierarchical for good reason and the hierarchy is built on merit and the merit is founded on learning.

It is not surprising that the Wikipedia emerged in the USA whose "culture" consists of truncated attention spans, snippets and soundbites, shortcuts and cliff notes. The Wikipedia is a pernicious counter-cultural phenomenon. It does not elevate or celebrate knowledge. The Wikipedia degrades knowledge by commoditizing it and by removing the filters and the barriers to entry that have proven so essential hitherto.

The Wikipedians Fight Back

This is the fifth essay I have written about the Wikipedia. Evidently, Wikipedians, Wikipedia, and Wikimedia are vehemently opposed to free speech when it is directed against them.

Judge for yourselves:

A group of Wikipedians apparently decided to take revenge and/or to warn me off. They have authored a defamatory and slanderous article about "Sam Vaknin" in their "encyclopedia'. To leave no room for doubt, at the bottom of this new entry about me, they listed all my articles against the Wikipedia. After repeated complaints, the article was removed, though any "editor" can still write an equally-slanderous new one at any time.

Additionally, I received an e-mail message from Brad Patrick, the Wikimedia's General Counsel (attorney), asking me to copy him on all future correspondence with Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, or anyone else associated with the Wikimedia Foundation and its projects. I declined his "request". He then proceeded to ask to communicate with my lawyer since "I raised the issue of suing his client." Couldn't be subtler.

I was also banned from posting to the Wikipedia - my punishment for what the Wikipedia calls "sockpuppetry" (essentially, editing articles without first logging in to one's account). It is ironic, since the vast majority of Wikipedians - including the administrator who banned me - edit articles anonymously or hide behind utterly meaningless handles and screen names. There is not a shred of proof, of course, that I have edited any article, with or without logging in.

Finally, my name as well as references to my work were removed from a few articles (for instance, from the entries about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Narcissism (Psychology)). At least one of the "editors" who were responsible for what appears to be a vindictive act ("Danny") claims to be somehow associated with the Wikimedia's grants commission.

Interview with Tom Panelas - Encyclopedia Britannica (September 2006)

Tom Panelas is the Encyclopedia Britannica's Director of Corporate Communications

Q. Is the Wikipedia an encyclopedia in any sense of the word?

A. I don't think it's crucial that everyone agree on whether Wikipedia is or is not an encyclopedia. What's important is that people who might use it understand what it is and how it differs from the reference works they're used to. Wikipedia allows anyone to write and edit articles, regardless of their knowledge of the subjects on which they're writing, their ability to write, or their commitment to truth. This policy has allowed Wikipedia to grow large very fast, but it's come at a price.

The price is that many of its articles are inaccurate, poorly written, long and bloated, or laden with bias and spin. Despite what some people would like to believe about Wikipedia, that its system is self-correcting, many inaccuracies remain for long periods of time, new ones are added, and, judging from quite a few media reports, sound information posted by people knowledgeable on a subject is often undone by others who know nothing about it. This is a natural result of the way Wikipedia is put together, its willingness to let anyone write and edit and unwillingness to give precedence to people who know what they're talking about. People who use Wikipedia should be aware of these liabilities.

Q. The Britannica used to be freely accessible until it was converted, a few years back, into a subscriber-only resource. Do you regret this decision? Perhaps if the Britannica were to provide a free authoritative alternative to the Wikipedia, it would still be the first stop of seekers of information online?

A. We don't regret the decision to charge a subscription fee for the premium portions of Britannica Online. Today our site has thousands of free articles, and those who subscribe to our premium service pay a fraction of what it cost for access to a high-quality, reliable encyclopedia only a few years ago. About a hundred million people worldwide have access to the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, through schools, libraries, and universities, and they don't pay for it at all.

Britannica has indeed become an alternative - not just to Wikipedia but to all of the unreliable information that courses through the public sphere these days, much of it on the Internet. The Web has been great for enabling publishers like us to reach many more people than we ever could before, but it's also made it possible for errors, propaganda, and urban myths to appear in the guise of factual truth. As more people realize that the contents of the Internet are often not what they seem to be, they've turned to sources like Britannica, which apply the same rigorous standards to our online products that we have always used in
all of our products.

Q. "Nature" compared the Wikipedia to the Britannica and resolved that both suffer, more or less, from the same rate of errors. You hotly disputed these findings. Can you elaborate?

A. The Nature article was bogus. Responsible people who paid attention to the facts understand that it's been discredited and don't even cite it. We spent twenty single-spaced pages rebutting it, so there's little need for elaboration beyond that. You can read what we said here

You can also read what USA Today

and Nicholas Carr

had to say about it.

Q. Peer-reviewed, professionally-edited reference works do have their shortcomings (elitism, conservatism, lack of pluralism, limitations of information available to the scholars involved). "Egalitarian" communal efforts like the Wikipedia do unearth, at times, data not available in "old-fashioned" encyclopedias. Moreover, the Wikipedia offers a far wider range of coverage and real-time updates. Can't it complement the Britannica? Can't the two even collaborate in some ways?

A. It's a myth that professionally edited reference works are limited or elitist. On the contrary, using a rigorous editorial method that draws on people who have spent their lives mastering their subjects produces an excellent balance in perspective. We always direct our contributors to include all major controversies in their surveys of a subject, whether those points of view are fashionable or not. This approach produces good articles for lay readers, who are the people who use encyclopedias. When the work is done by volunteers who aren't adept at this kind of work, the results often settle into a comfortable consensus that favors the viewpoint in vogue among the group of people doing the work. Usually, it's the people who are trained and experienced in going beyond their own points of view that manage to do it well.

Also Read:

The Incredible Web

Thoughts on the Internet's Founding Myths

Is Education a Public Good?

The Idea of Reference

The Future of the Book

The Kidnapping of Content

The Internet and the Library

The Future of Online Reference

Will Content Ever be Profitable?

The Disintermediation of Content

The Future of Electronic Publishing

Free Online Scholarship - Interview with Peter Suber

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