Dave Winer, a famous blogger who pretty much invented the concept of RSS and who’s work has led very directly to what so many of us (including me) do for a living, published his own view of what is wrong with Wikipedia.

As Winer puts it, Wikipedia is devalued because the content on it can be gamed by people with an agenda. He uses the example of his own bio on Wikipedia, which has been edited by other, anonymous people who just like to play around.

The unfortunate truth is this: there are many people in the world (certainly not a majority, but enough to make an effect) who basically want to tear down others. They do it for fun. They do it because they can. Perhaps they’re bored. Perhaps they are, under the surface, actually SCARED that others will rise above them.

You couple this with the anonymity that the Internet provides and there is a problem. As a small example, we had somebody come into our PCMech LIVE chatroom and IRC bomb the chat room while we had a live show in progress on Wednesday night. It killed the chatroom and managed to actually crash my IRC client on 3 different computers. We were up and running in just a few minutes, but it was a drive-by that was done because (a) they could, and (b) they knew we wouldn’t know who did it.

Let’s take that same mentality and move it to Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, you can make changes to content and do so anonymously. This is invitation for people to post items to Wikipedia that may or may not be true. Often times, you will see wild speculation, often having no basis in fact, covered on Wikipedia. Of course, the site has a moderation team, but even that is sometimes rife with petty internal struggles.

What makes this even more unfortunate is that there are many people out there who subscribe to the philosophy of “well, I read it on the Internet – it must be true”. Wikipedia articles almost always sound very informative and truth-filled. And, most of the times, I would venture to say that Wikipedia entries are probably pretty accurate. But, of course, much is put onto Wikipedia that is not accurate. And, many people don’t know how to tell the difference between fact and fiction. So many people today don’t do their own research or their own thinking, instead opting to digest the pre-digested “facts” of others and save themselves the hassle.

You can get up and say something authoritatively and practically convince them of anything.

As Wikipedia is run now, it has the problem of being able to be gamed by anybody anonymously, and the control is held by a group of insiders.

Winer proposes certain changes to Wikipedia to fix the problem. Essentially:

  • Pages covering living people should be limited to a page of pointers of attributed accounts. This means that edits would be accountable to a real person and not anonymous.
  • On controversial areas, work to get people actually involved to write first person narratives. Then, find the common threads and present it.

I like Dave’s ideas, although I’m not really sure how it could be implemented. But, look at it. It would help to reduce the effect of anonymous editors of a post, just inserting crap for the sake of entertainment or to mess with the subject. It would also help to alleviate the effect of mob rule when it comes to controversial subjects. Often times, such subjects are covered by people who have no first hand knowledge but observe from the outside. Or perhaps they just read other people’s opinions about it and then call themselves expert.

One of the important factors in Google Knol was that preference would be granted to authorities. Knol is going to allow competing entries, and they would invite people who are authorities on a subject to write on that subject. These two things will serve to make Knol, perhaps, a more fair system of knowledge. Unfortunately, Knol was going to introduce a commercial component as well, perhaps then skewing the content via other intentions (making a buck).

Unfortunately, there is really no easy way to make these kinds of improvements to Wikipedia. It would take a core level re-design of the Internet infrastructure to ensure true “caller ID” when it comes to who makes an edit. Or it would require enormous manpower on the part of Wikipedia to actually fact check.

And again, it always comes down to who is in control. It is the same argument that was posed against Jason Calacanis with his Mahalo search engine delivering human-powered search results. After all, if a human is controlling the index, can the search results be swayed to fit an agenda?

Wikipedia is a double-edged sword. It is the collective ability to edit the knowledge that has turned Wikipedia into such a world-renowned web destination. That same capability also means that you need to take what you read there with a grain of salt.

Can it be fixed? I don’t think it can – not without completely changing the entire model of Wikipedia. And, most likely, making those kinds of changes would kill it.

The lesson, though, that cannot be ignored is this: always take what Wikipedia says with a grain of salt. It may very well be true, but not in all cases. And especially question what it says in subjects which have any controversy attached to them. In non-controversial topics, you can probably rely on the information on Wikipedia.

There might be a little bit of mob rule on Wikipedia, Dave, but that is just a reflection of society.