Perhaps it is the innocence of Jimmy Whale, Wikipedia’s founder, or perhaps it is an innocence shared by all the Wikipedia editors. Either way, Wikipedia is surrounded by a sweet optimism that is at odds with the reality of the actual articles. Yesterday the Financial Times published an article by John Thornhill praising Wikipedia’s truthfulness. Incredible though it may seem, Thornhill describes Wikipedia in the following idyllic way:
Its volunteer contributors stick to a neutral point of view and agree among themselves what constitute reliable sources.
I’m sure this is the view of the majority of Wikipedians – and it would appear to be the view of Jimmy Whale as well.
Mr Wales said the site was relatively impartial because it had shunned advertising. Wikipedians wrote entries according to the subject’s interest rather than from any impulse to chase clicks. “We all know that the DNA of any organisation tends to follow the money.”
Such a statement ignores the thousands of Wikipedia articles created by companies to promote their products and brands. Because the rules of Wikipedia allow anyone to compile or to edit any article anonymously, Wikipedia has become full of product placement, woefully untrue statements, and articles placed by PR departments as seemingly neutral endorsements of the product – see, for example, my posts Wikipedia v. a tube of toothpaste, for example; quite apart from the endless re-editing of articles when a possibly valid statement is repeatedly replaced by a statement that could never be validated – see Will Wikipedia ever get their facts right? . I’ve also pointed out that the number of articles is growing far more quickly than the number of volunteer editors. A large, and growing, proportion of Wikipedia articles has never been edited by a Wikipedian, in other words. I hope they are unbiased and accurate. I’m sure they are.
Mr Thornhill quotes approvingly how the article for George W Bush has been edited over 45,000 times – concluding that “truth on Wikipedia is always a malleable commodity”. He seems to agree with Mr Wales that placing authors of diametrically opposed views in a room together will lead to an agreed viewpoint – the kind of attitude that most people lose by the time they get to university. He quotes Wales’s view:
It will take some time before they come to a consensus view but we are trying.”
My argument is that Wikipedia has created a world where some entries are battlefields between contributors, but also with thousands of articles that are flagrantly biased, and will probably never be corrected. Why should a volunteer edit the entry for a brand of toothpaste that a PR agency was paid to create? Don’t they have better things to do? Somewhere between the vision of Diderot’s Encyclopedia and Wikipedia something was lost, or perhaps, more precisely, some naivety crept in. I’m not surprised Wikipedia editors show it, but I am astonished that FT contributors can believe it as well.