Writing Craft - Boosting Creativity

The Wild, Wild Wiki

By: GSKearney

I love your wiki ways

By the pricking of my thumbs, something wiki this way comes. --William Shakespeare

If you've been doing online research or keeping up with current events, you've probably come across Wikipedia. It's an online encyclopedia maintained by a community of collaborators. Anyone can add edit or change entries in the encyclopedia, which makes it easy for anyone to share their knowledge. On the other hand, there's no real guarantee that they are being honest, accurate or even serious.

What the heck is a wiki?

I prefer the wiki rather than the foolish. -- Alexandre Dumas pere

Wiki sites contain documents in regular page form. Instead of an individual or small group of authors and a larger group of readers, everyone is an author and a reader. Such an open system might seem strange or even chaotic, but wikis can be very useful to communities founded on free information exchange.

Inspired by the Hawaiian expression for quick (wiki wiki), Smalltalk developer Ward Cunningham created a Web publishing system that serves developers and visitors equally. The first WikiWikiWeb site still operates at its original location. Since its inception, the wiki concept has spawned countless clones and implementations on various server platforms. You can host your own wiki sites or have someone else host them for you, for free or for a fee.

A wiki site is composed of pages. To create or edit a new page, users just type content into a text box. When the user saves the page, the wiki software handles the coding, so it's fun and easy to use for any participant. Here's a comprehensive list of Wiki Engines that you can download and install. If you're not a server expert, you can choose from the selection of Wiki Farms, which do the heavy lifting for you. I'd recommend that most people start by looking at some samples such as the one above, or Wikipedia.

A wiki differs from a blog in that a blog is primarily focused on one individual and the concerns of that individual even where others are allowed to post items, whereas a wiki is almost completely a collective enterprise and can be focused on anything that its users want to discuss. Blogs tend to be informal and conversational, while wikis are more formal and fulfill functions similar to traditional references and guidebooks.

World Wide Wikipedia

To see and listen to the wiki is already the beginning of wikiness. -- Confucious

Probably the best known wiki, Wikipedia, is an encyclopedia written in collaboration by its readers. People are constantly improving Wikipedia, thousands of changes an hour, all of which are recorded on article histories and as recent changes to articles. Inappropriate changes are usually removed quickly, and users can't break Wikipedia. Anything can be fixed or improved later, so the public is urged to create or edit an article and help make Wikipedia the best information source on the Internet! In the English version, started in 2001, they are currently working on nearly a million articles.

Wicked Wikipedia Wrongs Writer

One man's wiki may easily become all men's curse. -- Pubilius Syrus

Last year an anonymous author posted an article both false and malicious about John Seigenthaler on Wikipedia. The article remained on the site for several months prompting Sigenthaler to blast Wikipedia in print and online with an article in USA Today. His most telling comment, "... we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them."

"When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of 'gossip.' She held a feather pillow and said, 'If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.'"

While Mr. Seigenthaler certainly has a right to be upset, his reaction is somewhat overblown in light of some of the abuses of his own print media. When a newspaper, such as USA Today, or another media outlet of any type makes an error, they may print or pronounce a retraction. They do not recall all copies of the erroneous information nor are they held responsible for third parties who quote the errors.

What does happen is that, when their errors are pointed out, they lose credibility. Dan Rather lost his job for reporting false information about the president's military record. Author James Frey has been taken to task by his patron, Oprah Winfrey, for lying in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Even though Random House published and promoted the book as fact, they have refused any editorial responsibility for the book's truthfulness.

Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently retired as the chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group and who now runs his own literary agency, said in an interview yesterday that "there is no question what she said will have a far-reaching impact on our business."

"Agents, publishers and authors are all going to have to be much more cautious in the way they approach the nonfiction market," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "Traditionally, publishers have not done fact-checking and vetting. But I think you are going to see memoirs read not only from a libel point of view but for factual accuracy. And where there are questions of possible exaggeration or distortion, the author is going to need to produce documentation."

There are many other examples of famous errors: the Chicago Tribune printed that Dewey had defeated Truman in the 1948 presidential election; the Hitler diaries promoted by the German tabloid, Stern; or Clifford Irving's false Howard Hughes biography.

Legal restrictions on the print and broadcast media are currently more stringent than those on the Internet. Congress has specifically removed libel protections from online media, but then paper and blackboard makers are not held responsible for what people write on them either.

How accurate is Wikipedia

The world loves a spice of wikiness. -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The science journal Nature has found Wikipedia to be nearly as accurate as traditional encyclopedias for the most part. As part of its open-source credo, "Wikipedia's editing process assumes that exposing an article to many users will result in accuracy." This idea of an information commons depends on the users collaborating to guarantee the accuracy; but until such time as there is some sort of accountability maintained for the authors and editors of the articles, it cannot be said to be as reliable as traditional sources. Since most of the articles do contain references to external sources, it is a good place to start any research, but again you should verify that such links are not just spoofed sites set up to aid in the hoax. A Google, Yahoo, or Alta Vista search on a term of interest is a good place to start, but keep in mind that many online references are more or less incestuous in that they refer back and forth to each other rather than actually presenting new information.

Most of the articles at Wikipedia have discussion groups and history lists where the authors and contributors can discuss changes to the articles to ensure some degree of consensus. Most of the authors also have links, so that they are not actually anonymous or even attempting to be anonymous. I don't think the policy at Wikipedia that allows anonymous edits and posts actually contributes to the scope or accuracy of the information they are presenting. It's very difficult to trust someone who's wearing a mask. I'm sure there are some situations where it is beneficial to allow anonymous contributions, but I believe such contributions should be pointed out as such, and perhaps such posts should be verified or checked in some way by people who are willing to be known before such posts are added to the encyclopedia.

Who is responsible for the wiki?

All things truly wiki start from innocence. -- Earnest Hemingway

Another issue in the Seigenthaler case concerns the length of time that the article remained posted on the site. What that likely meant is that the article wasn't being read or referenced, otherwise someone would have corrected it. Mr. Seigenthaler could have corrected it himself, although Wikipedia does frown on the practice of editing your own biography on the site. Instead he chose to use the bully pulpit of his position at USA Today to castigate Wikipedia. That's somewhat like going after the resident of a building because vandals wrote an uncomplimentary remark about you on one of the walls. Nor did Mr. Seigenthaler or USA Today offer Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia founder, space in their publication to explain his side of the story.

The whole point of Wikipedia is that the community will correct errors when they are discovered. Disagreements are resolved by creating new articles that present the differing points of view. This may be a somewhat idealistic way to proceed, but we are still learning how to use this new medium, the Internet. What Wikipedia is doing is not yet nearly so reliable as the peer review system used in the sciences, but it is probably no worse than the current editorial process in other media. They all have their problems as we have seen. The Internet originated out of the scientific community, and was originally held to the higher standard prevailing in that community, and this has led to expectations that are no longer valid in the commercial and interest group dominated world that it has become. Wikipedia is one part of the Internet that seems to have been adopted by some parts of that scientific community as a way of publishing scientific information in a more rapid manner than traditional print channels. With Wikipedia the same peer review process can occur at Internet speeds rather than at the much slower pace of the print journals. The cost of this speed; however, is perhaps a somewhat diminished degree of accuracy.

One thing that Wikipedia does do is to remove the control of information from a small select group of editors or other insiders and return it to the group as a whole. I believe this distributed nature of Wikipedia caused some of Seigenthaler's antipathy. He is used to dealing with organizations where there are managers or executives in charge. Here there was no one to scream at. Traditional organizations thrive on blame and responsibility, whereas distributed organizations focus on using structure to solve problems. We tend to reward leaders excessively for the success of their organizations and penalize them excessively for the failures, but humans are social creatures whose successes and failures are quite often the result of group dynamics and chance rather than leadership.

Trust but Verify

Trust but verify. -- Russian proverb

Trust but verify. -- Ronald Reagan

Trust but verify. Ah, one of my best lines. I'll never forgive that thief Ronald Reagan -- Eric Zorn

With online or traditional information sources, all details must be checked. This is somewhat less critical in fiction; but believe me, readers will let you know when you make an obvious mistake. All reference sources are produced either directly or indirectly by humans, and we know that humans are susceptible to error.

Online research is much faster than doing a traditional search through your own reference books or at the local library. It's much easier to copy the parts you want as well. It takes some practice learn to write productive queries for online databases, and to winnow out unwanted results, but you can get a lot more work done. I spent several hours doing research for this article; but if I had been forced to do it all without using the Internet, it would have been several days.

Another advantage is that online sources such as Wikipedia tend to be much more current. It takes months if not years to update a print encyclopedia or dictionary. If you need current information, online is definitely better than print. Try finding anything about OGLE-2005-BLG-390L a recently discovered planetary system from another source. All the popular search engines referred me right back to the relevant articles on Wikipedia. I did use a link on that page to see a relevant article on the Nature website to verify the accuracy. The process there is to follow the link, go to the top level of the new site and then bore back down to the relevant article to make sure it actually exists on the site. This may seem like overkill, but it's quite easy to create a page that looks good and seems to be at the right location but is actually a fake. The process is called phishing and is commonly used by spammers to set up fake sites for stealing credit card information and such.

Conclusion

The sun also shines on the wiki. -- Seneca Lucius

With any source of information, you must verify. The Internet is no different from traditional media in this regard; and due to the ease with which information can be posted, there is a great deal of false, misguided, misleading or mistaken information available there. Don't expect anyone to tell you which is which. You really need to do your homework to develop reliable sources just as you do with people you interview directly. Try to become familiar with the source and try to understand the process by which the information is created and checked, so you can understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular source. If all you have to go on is an unattributed source, you can do that; but let your readers know that it's an unattributed source.

I would like to apologize for all the quotations that I have mangled in the pursuit of puns. In my defense I would just like to say that no trees were killed as part of the creation of this article. gk [And the quotations are gems all on their own, Gary! Im still chuckling. -- Mary Rosenblum, LR Web Editor]

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