Sunday, July 09, 2006

lay'd to rest

Frank Ahrens' "Web Watch" in today's Post uses last week's death of former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay to illustrate what he believes is the "critical weakness" of Wikipedia. While Ahrens says he is "a fan" of Wikipedia, he "just wants (it) to be better".

The problem? In the period between 10:00 am on Wednesday, July 5 -- when the mainstream news media first reported Lay's death -- and that same afternoon, Ken Lay's Wikipedia entry reported erroneous, speculative and even conspiratorial language about the cause of his death. Did he commit suicide? Was it the guilt that killed him? The stress? Or was it just your run of the mill heart attack?

Therefore, for approximately four hours, people reading the Wikipedia entry did not have an authoritative perspective on how Ken Lay died.

Because there is no formal peer review process, Ahrens writes,
people with an agenda (to be exact, "insane crazy people with an agenda") are able to contribute to a Wikipedia entry. And, as a result, Wikipedia "combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers".

To his credit, Ahrens does acknowledge that the revered Encyclopedia Britannnica has ALSO been written by individuals with an agenda. In their case, to promote an "Anglo-centric" and xenophobic point of view.

Okay. Three things.

1) The entire premise of Wikipedia -- that it is written through a collaborative and democratic process -- should lead its users to recognize that contributors may indeed be someone with an agenda. In fact, people are probably more
cognizant of this when they use Wikipedia than they should be when they read something that is perceived to have greater authority, whether that is The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or their high school history textbook.

While Ahrens is right that there is no "formal" peer review process, the fact that the Ken Lay entry was updated so rapidly speaks to the fact that it is indeed being reviewed by peers and that reason and order
eventually will be achieved.

3) Four hours to get to the truth ain't that bad. I'm not sure if you remember this, but
-- about six years ago -- there was a situation in which erroneous and speculative reporting by the MAINSTREAM MEDIA (which may or may not have had an agenda) led to a situation that was not resolved for 36 days.

Which concerns you more? The four hours it took to resolve the errors in Kenny Boy's Wikipedia entry or the 36 days it took to determine the identity of the President of the United States?


John Bell said...

I read the article then thought, 'what's his point?' the process of a somewhat self-correcting, group-written, source seemed to work out pretty well. I also agree with you that like every single source for information including the NY Times and Merriam Websters dictionary, you have to know the bias or weakness of the media property. Wikipedia certainly has its weaknesses (and tremendous strengths)

Anonymous said...

Yes the article was indeed pointless Wiki is great and yes there are people with agendas and there is vandalism by the insane and those with agendas. Still altogether Wiki is amazing and once an article is cleaned up they end up being mostly neutral and informative. I don't hold it against Wiki when an article is still unfinished and some errors creep in you just have to use your intelligence and examine what verification and/or citations might be available.

kristen said...

tee hee.

i'm a wikipedia addict, by the way.

abf said...

Does your addiction reflected in your use of Wikipedia as a resource or in your mad desire to update and author entries?