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The Onion and Wikipedia

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By EpicPupper
In honor of Smile Day on May 31, this month we look back at when The Onion published a humorous article regarding Wikipedia's issues with vandalism, and reflect on how calls for change then have impacts today. The following Signpost article, by Michael Snow, originally appeared in the 31 July 2006 edition as "Onion riff prompts some to cry for change". A minor modification to fix a dead link was made.

Parody newspaper The Onion poked fun at Wikipedia last week with a "news" story about celebrating the 750th anniversary of American independence. Reactions from Wikipedia editors ranged from enthusiastic appreciation of the joke to advocating major changes in an effort to have Wikipedia taken more seriously. The article [archived link] was part of The Onion's July 26 issue, and described how Wikipedia celebrated the supposed anniversary on July 25 with a featured section on the Main Page. It included excerpts from the "American Inderpendance" article riddled with vandalism, and indicated that it had apparently been protected as a result. A number of farcical facts and subjects were discussed, rounded out by sincere-sounding quotes from Jimmy Wales about the age of the United States relative to other historical events. The Onion even mentioned links to videos of the first Thanksgiving hosted on YouTube.

This is one of several recent uses of Wikipedia in a humor context. A piece in the August issue of Wired by comedian Stephen Colbert refers to Wikipedia as a way to get your own encyclopedia entry. As a bonus, he adds, "You can edit your own entry to make yourself seem even smarter." Late Show host David Letterman read the article Cougar (slang) aloud on air earlier this month. Also, the comic strip Working Daze recently featured a series of strips featuring Wikipedia, culminating in a manager ordering one of her employees to write an article about her.

A number of Wikipedia editors thought The Onion parody was one of the better attempts at Wikipedia-related comedy they had seen. Dpbsmith said he found it "hysterically funny". Not all agreed that The Onion's effort was especially witty, however, as a few contributors from outside the United States thought the story was somewhat lacking in the humour department.

The serious side of the story

Going even further, some editors took this as an opportunity to reiterate calls for significant change. Adam Carr said the piece should be taken as "a very serious warning" that the Wikipedia philosophy of open access to all editors was turning it into "an object of ridicule." Carr, who believes Wikipedia would be better off with both fewer articles and fewer editors, has long advocated eliminating the ability to edit without registering, along with a process for bringing articles to a state of completion.

Meanwhile, Ben Houston wrote an essay criticizing the overuse of anonymity and pseudonymity on Wikipedia. He suggested adopting a system similar to's "Real Name" attributions. Implementing a method to authenticate an editor's identity and encouraging its use, he said, "substantively improve Wikipedia's quality and reputation." Houston thought the authentication process could be outsourced to a commercial partner, possibly fee-supported, with a second option provided for those who don't have credit cards, which is what the system is based on.

Reactions to these proposals were mixed. Some editors agreed with the notion of disabling edits by unregistered users; others defended the importance of anonymity to the principle of free speech. Whether any action will be taken as a result is uncertain — similar proposals have been floated in the past, but so far the primary change is the restriction of article creation by unregistered users (see archived story), a practice that is still officially considered experimental.

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