Dalby: anecdotes and povs on Wikipedia

…the real problem, superficial as it may seem, is that encyclopedias are supposed to be reliable. Wikipedia calls itself an encyclopedia and although it denies being a reliable source it looks like a reliable source. … it looks like a reliable source because it is designed like that. ‘We are serious about this and we’re not trying to deceive you’, the layout says. (Dalby 2009: 193)

Andrew Dalby: The World and Wikipedia. How We are Editing Reality. Cornwall 2009.
Review by Juliana Brunello

Andrew Dalby describes himself as a historian and linguist who also makes cider (among other things). According to his Wikipedia user page he is fluent in English, French, Romanian, Portuguese, Latin and Greek, as well as some knowledge of other languages. In his book The World and Wikipedia: How We are Editing Reality, Dalby tells several stories from the point of view of an insider, making comments while also adding his critical judgment.

Throughout his book Dalby offers several anecdotes from the English, French and Latin Wikipedias offering the reader a good picture of the Wikipedia project and how it works, and most of all, what its most notorious incidents (along with less notorious ones) are.

There’s a curious paradox at the heart of Wikipedia. The articles, which are supposed to become definitive and stable, are in reality endlessly mutable…”. This means, each page is a work in progress and articles are of uneven quality. Yet, not only the regular ‘googler’ is using Wikipedia as a reference source, nowadays journalists make use of it more and more frequently. To give texture to this assertion, Dalby tells several stories of this use gone wrong. For instance, a fictitious quotation inserted deliberately into a Wikipedia article as an experiment was repeated in several newspapers, who ‘forgot’ to acknowledge their source. However, once such a citation is released by a ‘reliable source,’ it becomes ‘verifiable’ and can therefore, based on the Wikipedia rules, be quoted in Wikipedia. Due to this false confirmation a loop is created feeding from Wikipedia to the press, and then back again. Dalby concludes that it is “unwise to treat Wikipedia as a news source or blog rather than an encyclopedia,” and I must agree with him.

Pointing towards several other important issues, Dalby offers a thorough exploration of multiple matters of Wikipedia. For instance, the fact that it is possible to game the Wikipedia system in order to advance certain political agendas (much like in the ‘real world’), such as the “congressional staffer edits” case. Ira Matetsky quoted by Dalby states “The best feature of the site is that anyone can edit virtually anything contained on it. The worst feature of this site is that anyone can edit virtually anything contained on it.” Cases of vandalism further reinforce the idea that Wikipedia lacks accountability, authority, credentials and accuracy. These cases of false information when realized and reported on by the press lead to further vandalism as the public gets wind of Wikipedia’s ability to be played with. This further defacement, for example, may come in the form of an anti-Wikipedia campaign of vandalism such as the one run by Science Po.

NPoV guidelines are also discussed by Dalby, who states that “…although neutral point of view is required of us, neutrality is more easily demanded than attained“, as bias of both sides, left and right, can be found in Wikipedia. These tendencies are nevertheless not equally represented in Wikipedia, as right wing editors are watched carefully by the liberal majority. Yet, Dalby sees the good side of this policy as this “objectivity myth” helps collaboration to take place.

In addition, the author highlights the fact that wikis are very robust and possess a kind of “self-healing” mechanism, a kind of self-improvement process. However, some factors such as poor communication among editors tend to slow down this process. Moreover, it is hard to recognize false statements in specialized subject areas or false confirmation of sources. A false confirmation occurs when a mirror of Wikipedia (a site in which the contents of a certain Wikipedia article were copied, but not quoted) gets confused as being a primary ‘reliable source’ that originated the Wikipedia article. This mirror will then ‘confirm’ the false information provided originally by the article in Wikipedia and this mis-represented written information in it will persit.

Self-editing a page written about yourself in Wikipedia is considered bad practice. Some do it anonymously. Some pay others to do it. Some are honest and edit under their real name and get into more trouble because of this being a Wikipedia ‘no-no’. If you do get caught doing that, there will be bad repercussions, like being blocked from editing or getting some bad publicity. Of course, there is an exception to this rule, Jimmy Wales, who as the co-founder of Wikipedia has edited his own page over fifteen times. Other problems involve spam, either by placing well-hidden advertisement links, or spreading your biography for publicity reasons throughout other Wikipedia language versions. The author emphasizes that these kinds of spam are also not without consequences for the spammers, and in fact, the opposite of good publicity might be achieved in doing so.

Other (paper) encyclopedias are disappearing, as they cannot compete with Wikipedia. “Cross-fertilization” among languages – meaning just translating the content from one Wikipedia laguage version into another – is also present. Both, the disappearing of other encyclopedias and the “cross-fertilization” contribute to a real risk of centralization to one single reference source and consequently, spreading one single point of view. Dalby believes such centralization can be contained by international/multilingual editors, as they can represent their “competing realities“, and hence their different points of view and sources, on the Wikipedia pages’ battelfield.

The author concludes that albeit flawed, Wikipedia has become an authoritative source that “we will rely on more and more“. Within this system, Dalby recommends that we should “…not rely on Wikipedia (or any other source) without verification and … look at the article history and the talk page.

Dalby appears to be a devoted Wikipedian who can actually view the project with critical eyes. Nevertheless, he tends to see more of its positive side. I do disagree with a number of Dalby’s comments. He states, for instance, that “academic qualifications don’t net you a lot of credit in the Wikipedia world” (however it did give a lot of credit to essjay, remember him?), or that “We’re equal in Wikipedia whether we arrived yesterday or have been on site since 2001, or whether we have made 5,000 edits or only five.” If this last sentence were true, than the whole meritocratic system would fail, and Wikipedia is a meritocracy. He also claims that “any errors I have noticed on Wikipedia and not corrected them are my fault.” Here I must remind the reader that it is not always possible to correct an article. This might be protected or there might be an editor there who disagrees with your editing and reverts it. He also suggests that “…in the course of endless debate, an article eventually gets written that both sides can live with.” Here, once again, is not always the case. Some just give up, others leave frustrated.

The World and Wikipedia. How We are Editing Reality, is an entertaining book, although not well structured. It is definitely a good book for those who are just entering into exploring Wikipedia and have a cursor knowledge of it.