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2008-01-23 18:16:24

On the Perils of Wikipedia

It's hard to decide how afraid to be of something that is really bad and really rare.

This problem is currently one of the most controversial issues in the United States.  Ever since September 11, 2001, we have been wrestling with the question: How afraid of terrorism should we be?

How afraid should we be? 

This blog entry is not the place for me to take a stance on any of these issues.  For now I will simply say that I understand both perspectives.  This whole situation is simply the most obvious example of my point, which was:

It's hard to decide how afraid to be of something that is really bad and really rare.

Issues like these are like an icy ski slope.  Some people stand at the top.  Some people stand at the bottom.  Very few people stand anywhere else.  It's too slippery.

It is perhaps interesting to note that these issues can be equally polarizing when the context is far less important, like the digital world.  Granted, the underlying topics are far less weighty.  When discussing things like terrorism or child abduction, the definition of "really bad" is quite different than it is when talking about music piracy or vandalized Wikipedia entries. 

Still, the polarizing effect looks exactly the same.  It's hard to decide how afraid to be of something that is really bad and really rare.  Some people stand at the top of the slope.  Others stand at the bottom.


I don't know anybody who has lukewarm feelings about Wikipedia.  Folks either love it or they hate it.

My daughter's school teacher hates it.  Wikipedia can provide no claims of accuracy.  There is no good way to be sure that the information is correct.  When it's not correct, there is either no one to blame or no way to punish them.  All of these are crucial attributes of a traditional encyclopedia.

I understand this perspective, but on this particular issue, I'm standing at the top of the slope.  I love Wikipedia.  The principle is just very appealing:  The distinction between reader and writer is largely removed.  Anyone can add or change the content.  Since the good guys far outnumber the bad guys, the result is a body of content which is constantly growing and improving.

(It's kind of the same principle as Career Calculus, except for an encyclopedia.  Focus on the first derivative.  Instead of worrying about how good the encyclopedia is now, worry about whether it is getting better and how that's happening.)

I admit that there are obvious risks.  Since anybody can edit a Wikipedia page, it is always possible for the content of a page to be incorrect or even vandalized.

But the tradeoff seems to work well in practice.  I probably use Wikipedia every day.  The information I find there has been consistently helpful.  I like Wikipedia better than a traditional encyclopedia.  Much better.

But maybe this is because the threat isn't very real to me.  Personally, I have never encountered a vandalized Wikipedia article.  Occasionally I find an entry which is lame, but I don't remember seeing one that was blatantly wrong or intentionally damaged.  Most of the time, the content in Wikipedia is excellent.

But the fact remains:  Every time I use Wikipedia, I am taking a risk.  Since I have never gotten burned by that risk, the peril doesn't seem very real.

The Peril is Real

Wikipedia currently has an entry about me.  This morning, my 10-year-old daughter told me that she tried to edit that entry.  Suddenly my entire perspective on Wikipedia changed.  This was the first time I had to confront the idea of a vandalized Wikipedia entry in any sort of real way.

As it turns out, she didn't succeed.  But she's a very bright young lady, so I'm sure she'll figure it out soon.

As a matter of principle, I refuse to edit my own Wikipedia page.  So, I have a favor to ask of my readers.

Sometime soon my Wikipedia entry is going to change.  Any content about SourceGear, AbiWord or Spyglass will be deleted.  The new version of the article will focus primarily on my atrocious failings as a father, evidenced by my ongoing refusal to allow my youngest daughter to get a hamster.

When this happens, could one of you folks fix it for me?  Thanks.