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Edit This: Wikipedia Turns Five

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Edit This: Wikipedia Turns Five

Digital Life

Edit This: Wikipedia Turns Five

Edit This: Wikipedia Turns Five

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The collaborative online encyclopedia invites users to chronicle the world and constantly improve on each other's work. History professor Marshall Poe considers whether Wikipedia's a good thing.

ALISON STEWART, host:

All right. If you want to have a meta-moment today, go to Wikipedia and type in Wikipedia. Did you just hear the fabric of time and space rip apart?

(Soundbite of ripping noise)

STEWART: Anyway, the Wikipedia entry tells us that it launched seven years ago this week. So we thought we'd take a look back at the collaboratively edited encyclopedia.

Now according to that entry, as of December 2007, Wikipedia had approximately 9 million articles in 253 languages. Then that's if you can relate, believe that entry, which is part of the issue with the online community encyclopedia. It can be a valuable resource at times or a way to manipulate information about others.

Marshall Poe is writing a book about online collaborative technology and wrote a history of Wikipedia in the Atlantic Monthly. He's a professor of History in New Media at the University of Iowa.

Hi, Marshall.

Professor MARSHALL POE (History, University of Iowa): Hi, Rachel. Hi, Alison.

STEWART: How are you?

MARTIN: Hey there.

Prof. POE: Pretty well. Cold.

STEWART: I bet.

MARTIN: Me too.

STEWART: You're probably pretty happy that all those candidates are out of there.

Prof. POE: Yes.

STEWART: Let's - here we are. Seven years in. I would like you to give me one example in a way that we are better off for Wikipedia's existence and then give me one example of why things might be worse because of Wikipedia's existence.

Prof. POE: Well, one example would be the article on the heavy metal umlaut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, yes.

Prof. POE: No.

MARTIN: The heavy metal umlaut article.

Prof. POE: Motorhead. You know, this is a good example of how Wikipedia provides us with an incredibly broad, although somewhat shallow take on the common objects of experience, and these include absolutely everything from very general knowledge like the George Bush entry to very, very specific things like the heavy metal umlaut.

There is somebody out there who's an expert on the heavy metal umlaut and they or they and their colleagues worked that articles and I read it and I think it's quite good and it's funny and interesting and historically accurate, at least I think it's historically accurate. A way in which Wikipedia has made us a little bit worse off. Well, you know, I'm having trouble coming up with an example…

MARTIN: Wow.

Prof. POE: …but I'm generally a proponent of Wikipedia. I mean, there are places in Wikipedia and they're generally the high-traffic entries that do cause a certain amount of conflict and causes wonder - to wonder as to whether, you know, our fellow citizens are kind of responsible in the way that we would want them to be. But, again, I mean, my general take on it is that it's a good thing.

STEWART: Right. So we'll continue to go back and forth on that issue. But first, since the dawn of history - and you've done all these research on it. Tell us what the original mission of Wikipedia was and how that has evolved.

Prof. POE: Well, Wikipedia started as a project founded by Jimmy Wales, as you know, is called NewPedia and Jimmy Wales hired Larry Sanger who was then a graduate student at the Ohio State University to run it, and NewPedia was founded as a kind of standard encyclopedia except to say it was going to be online and open-sourced.

Online, of course, being distributed on the Internet; open-sourced, meaning pretty much anybody who met the criteria for participation could contribute. So it was supposed to be Encyclopedia Britannica for free online.

What happened was that after they founded the project and Sanger started to collect academics, experts to write the articles, sign them up, vet them, look at their credentials, get them to write the articles, have the articles evaluated, they discovered that it was really a very slow process, as anybody who's ever worked in academia knows. Academia, like publishing, I think, in general, works on a kind of glacial time scale. They were interested in something that would happen very, very fast.

So they discovered the Wiki technology, and Wales decided to open the site up to anyone and that's how it became the encyclopedia anyone can edit.

STEWART: Mm-mmm.

Prof. POE: And Sanger and Wales guided the project, especially Sanger for quite a while, and it grew and grew. And then Sanger became disenchanted with it precisely because of this issue of authentication of the articles and then he left it and the rest, as they say, is history.

STEWART: So known the Wiki makes sense to me because I know that wiki means fast in Hawaiian.

MARTIN: Yes.

Prof. POE: Yeah. That's exactly right.

STEWART: So that's interesting and that was one of the impetuses for opening up to everybody. But I'm - I maybe with the fellow who left. This is where I'll show my bias in the open. I had a personal issue with Wikipedia where there was something slightly slanderous written about me on my entry.

Prof. POE: Uh-huh.

STEWART: And it took me a long time to get them to take it down because their source was a comment on a blog posting…

Prof. POE: Yeah.

STEWART: …on a gossip blog.

Prof. POE: Yeah.

STEWART: That sounded like I had done something wrong. But it was just somebody's opinion that maybe I got this job because somebody works there. We all have heard the stories about people posing as experts. There was a 24-year-old kid who posed as a professor.

Prof. POE: Yeah.

STEWART: So the question becomes, I mean, is…

Prof. POE: And it beats the New Yorker fact-checking system.

STEWART: Yeah, which is really interesting, so does Wikipedia serve this great purpose if I have to question everything I read - which I do now?

Prof. POE: Well, I don't think you have, I mean, yes, you do have to question everything you read on Wikipedia, but I think it's important to realize that you should scale your questions and the amount of skepticism you have. I mean, clearly an entry about you. You know the most about you and you want to make sure that it's right.

If you also think about things that you're very interested in personally, if you have a hobby or, for example, radio broadcasting is something that you know everything about, you have a vested interest in that and you might want to pay attention to those entries.

And when I say scale your skepticism, you know, for example, the George Bush entry or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict entry or the Mitt Romney entry, those are going to be high traffic and very controversial because people have lots of axes to grind.

STEWART: Hmm.

Prof. POE: Other entries like cardboard containers and, you know, obscure entries about mathematics, I say that because my wife is a mathematician. You know, on springer(ph) fibers. Those are obviously written by experts because nobody else knows the lingo.

STEWART: That's - it was interesting in your article, you reported that almost the smaller and more - that the more minutiae kind of entries are probably the more accurate ones.

Prof. POE: Oh, no, that's exactly right. And if you think about it with, I think, around two million or over two million English language entries, 95 percent of those are just what you call them, they're minutiae. They are stuff that are interested - interesting to a very small number of people.

I mean, I studied a guy named Sigismund von Herberstein. He was a 16th-century diplomat.

MARTIN: Love him.

Prof. POE: Yeah, exactly from my stage too. Well, me and about three other people and I wrote a book of him and what he did and my mom read it and nobody else, except for this guy in New Zealand apparently who wrote an entry on Sigismund von Herberstein. It's quite good and I added to it.

So, I mean, that's good example of the kind of thing. The more specific it is, the more accurate it's likely to be and the less skeptical I think people have to be of those particular entries.

STEWART: Marshall Poe is writing a book about collaborative technology. He's also professor of history and new media at University of Iowa. We're talking about the 7th anniversary of Wikipedia.

Are your students allowed to cite it?

Dr. POE: No. They do not cite it. I always say the same thing about Wikipedia. Whenever you're doing research, it's a good place to start, you know, a good place to start, that's all. Your search doesn't end; there it starts there.

STEWART: Do you think…

Dr. POE: So they don't cite it, no.

STEWART: We've only got a little bit of time left. Do you think that the Wikipedia scanner that has been developed so you can find out who is changing the entry, do you think it's a good thing for the encyclopedia?

Dr. POE: I think it's a good thing but I think that it's been - you'll pardon me for saying, somewhat hype in the press - I mean, what we've discovered is that people that's - you know, a few guys at Citibank really are big Mets fans, I mean, it's not as if they're…

MARTIN: Right.

Dr. POE: …jading(ph) up the Citibank entry. They're writing entries about The Mets.

STEWART: Again, you should read it. And basically, you have to go on a certain level just know what you're reading, I guess is the answer.

Dr. POE: Yes, that's right. I mean, you participate and then you'll how it works.

STEWART: Marshall Poe, professor of history at University of Iowa.

Thanks, Marshall.

Dr. POE: Thanks very much. I enjoyed talking to you.

MARTIN: Stay with us. This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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