Wikitorials and Wikipedia

Abortive wikitorial project sparks more debate on Wikipedia's merits

The new concept of "wikitorials", recently introduced by the Los Angeles Times, has directed renewed media attention at Wikipedia, led by a critical New York Times column. The actual launch of the wikitorials drew some participation from Wikimedia circles, but amid all the publicity the project was soon aborted and its return is uncertain.

The wikitorial experiment

Wikitorials, which would allow readers to edit the paper's editorials online (see archived story), were first mentioned a week ago as part of a general plan to revamp the LA Times editorial page. In an editorial accompanying the inaugural effort, the paper described the wiki concept and said of Wikipedia that it "works bewilderingly well."

The wikitorial wiki used MediaWiki software, although creating an account was required in order to edit. Among those participating were Jimbo Wales and Wikinews administrator Ilya Haykinson. When the original wikitorial was moved to an inappropriate title, this was reverted and the offender blocked within five minutes. Wales then tried to launch a counterpoint page to provide an outlet for opposing views; however, this mostly drew sarcastic additions from those sympathetic to the original editorial's stance.

Other than the one block, however, the LA Times staff seemed to merely be observing developments and made little effort to get involved in guiding or developing the process. The plan as outlined by Michael Kinsley, the editor of the newspaper's editorial page, was to "filter it very lightly". This minimal level of supervision apparently left the wiki unprepared for the effect of being featured on Slashdot, as happened Saturday.

The effect of Slashdot items that link to wiki pages is fairly familiar on Wikipedia. A flurry of new edits is a certainty, quite a bit of which will be vandalism, and the article must be reverted frequently and often protected from editing. Similarly, the wikitorials project was hit with several vandalism attacks within a few hours of appearing on Slashdot, and the wikitorials were taken down on Sunday. The statement left behind read: "Unfortunately, we have had to remove this feature, at least temporarily, because a few readers were flooding the site with inappropriate material."

Editorializing on wikitorials and Wikipedia

The wikitorial experiment also prompted commentary in the media on the merits of such collaborative efforts. On Wednesday, The New York Times published an op-ed piece entitled "The Interactive Truth", written by author Stacy Schiff filling in for columnist Maureen Dowd. Schiff used the opportunity to lament the blurring of the distinction between fact and fiction, suggesting that in today's society "the illusion of facts will suffice."

Schiff pointed to the wikitorials and their ultimate model, Wikipedia, as examples of this trend. She cited an anonymous teenager who dismissed Wikipedia's disclaimer as legal boilerplate, and quoted him as saying of the content, "It's all true, mostly." The column drew an analogy to instances in modern culture where authority was being conferred upon things that were intended as entertainment.

Blogger Ernest Miller responded that the Wikipedia approach was at least honest, and that traditional methods do not necessarily have a better claim on truth than newer models. Miller pointed out that the standard of "It's all true, mostly" is about as much as could be claimed for other supposedly authoritative information sources, like books.

Techdirt criticized Schiff for missing the point that wikitorials, just like normal editorials and even Schiff's own column, are about opinions and not facts. The LA Times acknowledged this difference between wikitorials and Wikipedia in its introductory comments, observing that "encyclopedias and newspaper editorials are very different literary forms." The Techdirt post also highlighted that Schiff's use of "the oh-so-popular single-source anonymous anecdotal story" was not necessarily representative of how people approach Wikipedia as an information source.

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