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The Wiki effect

Wikipedia relies on 'community,' a notion that's beginning to carry the weight and promise of 'expertise'

FOR WIKIPEDIA, it's the best and worst of times. The free online encyclopedia, which allows anonymous users to post and edit articles on a limitless variety of topics, has become ubiquitous on the Web, in the press, and in the classroom. In the last year, the site's readership has surged from slightly more than 3 million to almost 13 million unique viewings per month. In the five years since its founding, with a self-proclaimed tally of more than 700,000 articles (compared to Encyclopedia Britannica's total, which, according to Wikipedia, tops out at 85,000) Wikipedia has become one of the chief engines of growth on the Internet.

And yet all is not well with Wikipedia. Earlier this year, legendary journalist John Seigenthaler discovered that a Wikipedia article about him included the assertion that he had been a suspect in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy. The charge was without basis-Seigenthaler in fact worked for Robert Kennedy and served as a pallbearer at his funeral-and yet it had been online for four months, and wasn't removed until Seigenthaler himself brought the offending piece to the attention of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

For Seigenthaler, a free-speech advocate who founded the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Wikipedia is emblematic of a conundrum at the heart of the information age: ''We live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communication and research,'' he wrote in a Nov. 29 column in USA Today, ''but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects.''

To Seigenthaler, the problem is one of authority-spurious articles scattered here and there impugn the authority of Wikipedia as a whole. He was astonished at the lack of power of Wikipedia's administrators, who ''don't know, and can't find out, who wrote the toxic sentences.'' (The author, who has apologized to Seigenthaler, admitted that the article was a hoax meant to dismay a co-worker.)

Nor was the Seigenthaler article the only source of distress for Wikipedia this fall. On Nov. 25, the German news service Deutsche-Welle reported that hundreds of articles on the encyclopedia's German-language site were copied from outmoded East German reference books. For Wikipedia critics, it's further proof that the site is a morass of pranksters, crackpots, and plagiarists.

The Seigenthaler affair points up a crucial condition of the Internet's information ecology: It's a system that doesn't select for truth. Currency, controversy, charisma, fascination-these count much more in determining the vitality and survivability of online articles, facts, or ''memes.'' In the 21st century's networked knowledge environment, truth will be less and less identified by the imprimatur of expert writers and invisible, omnicompetent editors, but by readers who understand the principles of networked information.

. . .

In the 18th century, Denis Diderot and his collaborators compiled the Encyclopédie, the most famous example of the genre, in which they affirmed a commitment to explanations that were clear, rational, and universally accessible. And yet the Encyclopédie defined the tradition of the encyclopedia as a compendium of knowledge filtered through the quickening intelligence of experts. The tradition reached its apex with the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, whose contributors included Henry Ford, John Muir, and Bertrand Russell. Still prized for its lively writing, the 11th also betrays the prejudices of its age, extolling progress and weighing heavily toward Eurocentrism.

Like its predecessors, Wikipedia expresses the assumptions of its time. Like everything on the Web, it makes a virtue of size and speed. The site relentlessly tracks its ballooning volume of sheer word length (224 million words, as of this writing, compared to the paltry 55 million of the current Encyclopedia Britannica), championing both the rate of growth in the number of articles and the quick attention new articles receive from eagerly editorializing Wikipedians. In its reliance on the notion of ''community,'' too, Wikipedia is a study in 21st-century hopes and prejudices; the term ''community'' is beginning to carry the weight and promise once assigned to the word ''expertise.''

Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, began his adventure in encyclopedism in 2000 with Nupedia, which he conceived as a free online encyclopedia of peer-reviewed articles by recognized authorities. But according to Wikipedia's own online history, ''the writing of articles was seen as very slow.'' By reformulating his encyclopedia project in ''wiki'' format (a term adapted from the Hawaiian word for ''speed'' by the pioneering software engineer Howard Cunningham, who invented the shareable, open-access platform), Wales hoped to found a new paradigm for the authority and reliability of information, one based on clarity, accessibility, and speed rather than deliberation and authority.

For Wikipedians, process is more important than product. Examine Wikipedia stories on any name, story, or issue of great public importance and you'll find a mutliplex dialogue of revision and counter-revision. For engaged Wikipedians, it's a bracing process; its usefulness to the casual reader is less certain.

Of course, the tradition of authority that makes the whole notion of the casual reader possible didn't spring fully formed from the brow of Johannes Gutenberg. From its beginning, the printing press was used to disseminate scandal, gossip, and crackpot theories; it took centuries for the traditions that John Seigenthaler (and likely anyone reading this newspaper) accepts to take root and flourish. On the Internet, new standards of authority are emerging:'s evolving system of reputation rating for reviewers is one example. But even in an information ecology that values speed above all, such standards will take time to emerge-time, and the active and discriminating involvement of the reader not as a consumer, but a user.

The Seigenthaler affair is a reminder that the age of the casual reader, if it ever in fact took place, is rapidly passing away. Most readers may not fancy themselves encyclopedists, authors, or journalists-manqués, but they can no longer assume that what passes for fact is unimpeachable. The ecology of information turns them into editors and reviewers perforce. The effect of this revelation may in time prove healthy-if we wake up to our responsibilities as readers.

Matthew Battles is the coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin and the author of ''Library: An Unquiet History.''

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