Friday, December 02, 2005

Emerging Pedagogy Tools: What is wrong with wikis

The problem with wikis seems to me to be that when a community manages a wiki nobody can be held accountable. In a recent on-line news story retired journalist John Seigenthaler [Link to story] [Link to biography] alleges he was done wrong by Wikipedia [Link]. In a "Public Eye" story on, Seigenthaler said wikipedia committed “Internet character assassination.” According to the story when Seigenthaler checked his own biography on wikipedia it said, in part:

“John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”

According to the story Seigenthaler said:

“One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer.”

This is exactly what I dislike most about Wikis and why I have very little interest in them. According to the story:

The philosophy behind Wikipedia and similar “wikis” is to create open-source community definitions for words, events and other bits of information. Theoretically, the more people contributing to a given topic entry, the better the definition because you are drawing from various perspectives, backgrounds and expertise rather than a limited number of sources. Anyone can go into a given wiki and change it.

Assuming Seigenthaler is right:

  • Who is accountable?
  • Who issues a retraction?
  • If the record is set right, who assures that it is not made wrong again?

With wiki's it is all about the community, in other words it is a collective of self-appointed posters that has the power to set the record straight, and then screw it up again. The voice of a wiki is not a voice easily held accountable. That is why it is hard to trust a wiki and why I seldom use or contribute to them. In my opinion a wiki is a Website by committee and we all know how good committees are at getting the job done right. With wiki's the truth is defined not by the most accurate to post, but by the most recent to post. We cite from, and quote from, wikipedia and other wikis as though they have real authority and in my opinion they do not because they lack the most important element of authority, what they lack is accountability.

In a story related to this incident, Charles Cooper of C-Net's [Link] in a story entitled Perspective: Wikipedia and the nature of truth said, "Somebody nursing a grudge can always pervert or airbrush the historical record." Cooper went on to say this:

Of course, Seigenthaler might have registered as a user with Wikipedia and corrected the article himself. Failing that, he could have posted comments to the article correcting the mistakes. The reality is that this is asking too much. We're talking about a 78-year-old guy who came of age when state-of-the-art was defined by 78 rpm records, tube radios and black-and-white televisions. And with so much stuff out there--and more getting created each day--was the burden on Seigenthaler to know he was the subject of a Wikipedia article? I'm sure his first question was, "What in the heck is a Wikipedia?"

I am happy to report in the version of Wikipedia I saw today [Link] the errors seem to have been corrected. There are even links there to stories like Coopers. So, this record seems to have been set straight, for the moment anyway.

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