The wiki effect

The Sunday Boston Globe had a commentary piece by Matthew Battles called The Wiki Effect. In it, Battles recounts the recent story of a Wikipedia hoax/joke on journalist John Seigenthaler that went sour and went on to damage the reputation of the entire Wikipedia enterprise. We hear in this article the same old objections to the obvious flaws in Wikipedia’s approach. Where are Truth and Authority to be found when any yahoo can stumble along and vandalize articles at will? Is this any way to run a serious Reference of Record?

This is a facile observation. While true, it misses the larger point. But I was pleased to see Battles making this same larger point later on:

The Seigenthaler affair is a reminder that the age of the casual reader, if it ever in fact took place, is rapidly passing away. Most readers may not fancy themselves encyclopedists, authors, or journalists-manqués, but they can no longer assume that what passes for fact is unimpeachable. The ecology of information turns them into editors and reviewers perforce. The effect of this revelation may in time prove healthy-if we wake up to our responsibilities as readers.

The key phrase here is “if it ever took place.” What’s happening with news sources has been happening for some time with digital photographs. People now know they shouldn’t (necessarily) trust digital photos. But in fact they never should have trusted photographs. Photographs have been manipulated since the dawn of the photographic age. Similarly, people are learning that they shouldn’t (necessarily) trust their news sources. Of course, manipulated news stories have an even longer history than manipulated photographs. The Wikipedia is an honest and straightforward tool to help understand and manage the potential for its own abuse. Look at this Wikipedia article on the scandal and ask yourself if CNN would give as full accounting of its own foibles. As Claude Rains might have said in Casablanca: “I’m shocked… shocked to hear the New York Times sometimes fumbles the truth.” That’s a lesson worth learning.

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