There is a public misconception of Wikipedia: that any anonymous editor can edit Wikipedia at any time, and the person behind them cannot be tracked or identified. This is essentially a decade-old narrative, yet it is persistent and embedded in the public consciousness.
Many old-timers still remember the 2005 Seigenthaler incident: an anonymous editor inserted a hoax about John Seigenthaler, a prominent and then still-living journalist, and made a reference to his suspected involvement in the assassinations of John and RobertKennedy. The subject of the article read his biography and characterized this insertion as "internet character assassination". The anonymous troll was later unmasked as Brian Chase, an operations manager in Kentucky. The current biographies of living persons policy was implemented in response shortly thereafter, but the damage was done; the Seigenthaler incident spawned widespread criticism of Wikipedia among educators.
Since then, Wikipedia has made tremendous efforts to reach out to academia and build a foundation of trust. Jimmy Wales recently replied to a question on Quora on this very subject, writing that "if the recommendation is to not use Wikipedia at all, I think that's silly and naive advice—all students use Wikipedia a lot! ... If the Professor has a more nuanced view that Wikipedia should not be cited 'as a source' by university students, then I agree completely!" Jimmy Wales explains what many people already know: that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, and that it has a systemic bias in favor of white, male, young, and educated individuals.
The Seigenthaler incident happened right as Wikipedia's popularity was beginning to explode. Wikipedia had about 12,000 active editors in October 2005, a number that has climbed to close to 137,000 now. Hundreds of these editors participate in new page patrol and recent changes patrol, the main purpose of which is to review nearly every single edit. They use sophisticated tools like Huggle, page curation, Cluebot, edit-protection, pending changes, and edit filters to watch for and roll back vandalism and dubious editing, or to prevent it from occurring in the first place.
None of this ensures the trustworthiness of Wikipedia—it simply demonstrates that the environment that allowed "anonymous editors" to create the aforementioned incidents has long since dissipated. Yet that hasn't stopped a Quora "Top Writer '14" from propagating such a viewpoint. There are plenty of reasons not to cite Wikipedia in a college paper, mind you. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia written by, for the most part, laypeople. Despite everyone having the title "editor", there is no actual editorial fact-checking process for most articles whose sources are generally filled with journalism, not academia. The most active demographic group is white, young men. Many of its best 'quality' articles face a bias towards recentism or cover topics in pop culture of questionable encyclopedic interest.
Kent, though, mentions none of this. Though he is right in the premise, he is entirely wrong in the details. In my view, Kent overlooks the actual real and pressing problem with Wikipedia: like Quora, Wikipedia suffers from an entrenched elitist attitude which celebrates the ignorant shut-out of ideas that the elites don't like. It's human nature, really. Wikipedia is willing to sacrifice information if it threatens the integrity of a well-known persona. Despite essays like "No Angry Mastodons" and the philosophy that adminship is "No big deal", our administrative noticeboards have an automatic knee-jerk reaction to support a veteran editor over a novice editor. Tools like page histories, a tool that provides indisputable proof of previous edits, are not utilized while investigating concerns. Editors quickly measure their opinion of the two editors and then draw out terms such as "WP:BOOMERANG" that have become Wikipedia buzz words. It's quite easy to predict a boomerang on ANI these days—one must only count the number of the user's edits.
Quora has compounded the elitism issue even further. As a forum similar to Wikipedia's reference desk, Quora is a forum where questioners ask the public about a particular topic and users vote on the best answer, Yahoo! Answers-style. The difference between Yahoo! Answers and Quora is that the latter has a handy threaded reply feature with a block button. The particulars matter: when one editor blocks another it also hides the comments made by the blocked editor, in this case hiding from public view my criticism of Kent's position—as though it never happened. It's an interesting tool that I know hundreds of politicians wish they had.
"Now, what does this have to do with Wikipedia?", you ask.
I believe Quora represents a larger issue: the number of authorities in the general public who are ignorant of the differences between 2005 Wikipedia and 2015 Wikipedia, and whose assumptions are never challenged because the public is unaware. Authorities in a subject are generally regarded by the average Joe to be authorities in all subjects. It becomes a sort of intellectual jack-of-all-trades. Their authority gives the misinformation legitimacy. And while I would never make the argument that Wikipedia is reliable, it is important to know why it isn't. Until you get to the real reason Wikipedia is unreliable, you'll never know what to actually be wary of. And in the end, you'll be unreliable to yourself.
TParis is an administrator on the English Wikipedia. He has edited the site since 2008.
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