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'Bold But Verifiable,' Wikipedia Turns Ten

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, January 14 2011

Back in February of 2007, Fred Stutzman, programmer and informationist, reported in this space what was then rather striking: for each of the presidential candidates engaged in the '08 race, their Wikipedia entries were among the top five results on their names returned in Google. Here it was, the "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," crafting the public perception of the highest-profile political figures in America. And there was not much those candidates could do about it. "There was no newspaper editor to cajole, no reporter to try to spin. "There is no other entity on the web," wrote Stutzman at the time, that plays such a systematically influential role in candidate information positioning as Wikipedia."

Wikipedia turns ten tomorrow, and that truth remains. Wikipedia is at the moment the second Google result for Barack Obama, for example, and the same for John McCain. It ranks near the top for everything from Mike Huckabee to Medicare. Wikipedia is not without its flaws, some of which have become part of the site's own narrative at this point; see, for example, Wikipedia's own entry on the "Wikipedia Biography Controversy," i.e., the time that journalist John Seigenthaler found out he'd died. It's not the free for all that some imagine it to be, and there's on-going debate over how many hands are making the pie. (It remains quirkier, though, than some might think; witness the nonsense titles like Labutnum, Looshpah, and Togneme bestowed upon people who make a lot of contributions.) But it's a little difficult not to be amazed that this wild notion, that with the right tools and enculturation millions of people would craft and rely upon an encyclopedia of some 17 million entries on nearly every topic under the sun, seems to actually have worked. Or, at least, it seems to have worked well enough. One can argue that Wikipedia isn't about the perfection. It's about the perfecting, made possible when many minds and many hands are willing to do the work.

Wikipedia aims to achieve a neutral point of view. How's that possible when it comes to politics, where passions get so heated and the same "fact" can look different depending on where you're standing? There's a hint, perhaps, in Wikipedia's editorial guidelines. Be bold, they read. But be verifiable. (Those principles seem worth some pondering this week in particular, when the shootings in Tucson have political civility much in the news and the Internet taking some of the blame.)

On the tenth anniversary, we can take a look back at some of the places where Wikipedia and techPresident have intersected over the years.

Just earlier this week, we examined the Wikipedia debate over whether Sarah Palin had earned a place on the page of the thousand-year-old concept of "blood libel." And when Palin had just entered the world stage, we tracked the public hunger to get to know the little known Alaska governor through Wikipedia. We wondered about what Wikipedia knew about now Connecticut Governor Richard Blumenthal's (lack of) service in Vietnam, and when it knew it. We've tracked why people edit candidates' pages, even when they don't particularly feel strongly about them one way or another. And we've noticed what happens when people do feel passionate about a candidate who might be getting ignored in the press, with Ron Paul and Mike Gravel as our case studies. We took note when feuding between Israel and Palestinians spilled over onto Wikipedia, and we had a little chuckle when Wikipedia decided who had taken control of the New York State Senate before the New York State Senate did.

Of course, Wikipedia stands as many people's minds as a prime example of what can happen when people are given the tools to collaborate, and how what they build can measure up well against the gatekeepered, "professional" alternative. But what also stands out about Wikipedia on its 10th anniversary is just how much it just is. In the year 2011, it just is part of our collective information experience. It doesn't even seem all that strange anymore that, as Fred drew attention to four years ago, what we know about the world's most important political figures comes from a living document a bunch of people wrote. Wikipedia is our new normal. Clay Shirky, of course, introduced us to the concept of cognitive surplus, the idea that our lives and minds have spare cycles that we seem increasingly willing to contribute, even to things that don't directly benefit us. Wikipedia suggests he's on to something.

On Wikipedia's tenth anniversary, what's exciting to think about is what sort of collaborative experiences might be the new normal of 2021.