Subjects defend Wikipedia

Victims of errors defend Wikipedia

Despite encountering significant errors in their biographical articles on Wikipedia, two people have published lengthy defenses of the project. Both article subjects, Cory Doctorow and Bertrand Meyer, took an optimistic view of the experience and argued that Wikipedia's transparent processes make it more useful.

Wikipedia vs. The Register

Doctorow, an author and Fellow with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote an essay Wednesday on the Boing Boing blog that contrasted Wikipedia with one of its most frequent critics. In his piece, Doctorow compared the process of getting information corrected in his Wikipedia biography with his experience in seeking a correction of an article by Andrew Orlowski in The Register.

With respect to his Wikipedia article, Doctorow related that an anonymous editor had misrepresented some of his views and cast aspersions on the success of his books. Doctorow fixed this as soon as he became aware of it, then progressively worked with other editors to produce a satisfactory article. He summarized, "That's what it was like when someone maligned me on Wikipedia: within five minutes of discovering it, I was able to correct it, and subsequently I had a public discussion with the guy, hammering out a consensus."

The Orlowski piece for which Doctorow wanted a correction involved people editing their own Wikipedia biographies, after the reports of Jimmy Wales editing his own article appeared in the press (see archived story). Orlowski failed to realize that the talk page had been refactored, so he took some quotes from it and called Doctorow "silly and foolish" for talking about himself in the third person. However, since Orlowski had gone on vacation, Doctorow was unable to get a correction until after he reached Orlowski's editor. Doctorow also complained that after the misquotations had been removed, no record was left that a correction had been necessary.

Doctorow argued that the test of both systems was not "how they perform when they work as they're intended to -- it's what happens when they fail". On this issue, he favored the Wikipedia process, in which he said you could trace how the truth was negotiated, over the hidden workings of The Register.

The reports of my death...

A similar defense of Wikipedia came from Meyer, a computer scientist whose biography on the German Wikipedia was changed to indicate that he had died on 24 December. The change, actually made on 28 December, survived until someone else noticed it on 3 January. Meyer commented on the events in a treatise entitled "Defense and Illustration of Wikipedia", which he said he had initially prepared in response to another commentary published in Communications of the ACM. The authors of this commentary had cited several dangers associated with Wikipedia, which Meyer acknowledged, but he criticized their failure to cite concrete examples.

Meyer now had his own personal experience to relate as well, in an incident that was also reported by a number of German-language media sources. The offending revisions have been deleted from the page history, but a screenshot was preserved by Christian Kirsch of Heise. In Meyer's own translation, the article stated at the time, "According to the latest reports, Bertrand Meyer died on 24.12.2005 in Zurich. On 23.12.2005, exam results were published; links between that publication and his death couldn't be confirmed".

Like most people, Meyer thought the report of his death amounted to a student joke. In an observation on the media coverage, he gave as his impression that, after the Seigenthaler incident, it reflected a sort of pride in the German-language press having their own Wikipedia scandal to report. Responding to Lauren Weinstein, one of the authors of the Communications of the ACM article, Meyer conceded that an erroneously reported death was less disturbing than a false report of an arrest "for some truly reprehensible offense" would be. Meyer nevertheless concluded, "But if someone is going to slander me horribly on the Web, I'd rather that he chose an editable medium."

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