Knaller an der Zeitungsfront

Saturday, March 03, 2007

You couldn’t make it up (The Timess)

From Times Online
March 02, 2007
You couldn’t make it up
The internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia is one of the most visited sites on the web. Can you trust it?
Jenny Kleeman

How can you tell when you have arrived at a Wikipedia meet-up? Any of the groups in this busy London bar could be the people I am looking for, because Wikipedia could be written by anyone and everyone. I exchange bewildered looks with random drinkers until I come to a large gathering at the back of the bar: an incongruous mix of students, well-dressed women, Goths and middle-aged men. One of them has a ferret sleeping in his lap. These must be the people I have come to meet.

If you use the internet, you have probably used Wikipedia. The web-based encyclopaedia that anybody can edit ranks among the 12 most visited sites in the world, with traffic rising every month. Its content has been creeping into newspaper articles, GCSE coursework and academic dissertations. With no centralised moderator, it has been accused of being unreliable, sometimes unreadable, and even libellous.

But who are we actually relying on when we use Wikipedia? Little is known about the small army of regular volunteers who dedicate themselves to editing the site. I am here because I want to find out who they are — and why they do it. About 30 of the site’s most committed contributors are here tonight, many of them meeting for the first time. I get talking to Charles Matthews, a 52-year-old former Cambridge academic and the second most prolific Wikipedian in the world. Since he discovered the site in 2003, Charles has made more than 100,000 edits to the encyclopaedia, on topics ranging from mathematics to Quaker poets. He is eager to tell me how Wikipedia is changing the world.

“We’ve made knowledge cool,” he beams, from behind thick-rimmed glasses. “No young person would ever want to be seen walking around with an encyclopaedia under their arm. But thousands of them look at Wikipedia every week. That’s quite an achievement.” I ask Charles if I can spend an afternoon watching him work. “You want to come over to my house and see me at my laptop in my pyjamas?” he laughs. “You’re welcome to, if you think it would be interesting.”

Charles lives in Cambridge with his wife, two children, two Yorkshire terriers, and more than 5,000 books. They line four rooms of his house from floor to ceiling. There are 600 books on the game Go alone, in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. “There’s lots of useful information that you can get from books,” he smiles, “even if they’re not in English.” A former mathematics lecturer, Charles left academic life in 1998 when Cambridge University failed to give him tenure. He then became a writer, a voluntary worker and a house-husband. Since finding Wikipedia, he spends about 50 unpaid hours a week working on the site, making up to 200 edits a day. “I’m supposed to be cleaning the house,” he says, sheepishly.

A typical day will begin with Charles picking up a book, but he won’t read it, as such. “I’m just after the topics — I’m not that interested in what the authors are saying. You whiz through books to find clues about what people interested in certain areas should have heard of. You pick out the highlights, make a list of interesting topics, pop it into Wikipedia and then start working.” His study is strewn with handwritten lists, waiting to be entered into the site.

He plunders Cambridge’s secondhand bookshops, selecting his books according to what is in the index. Today, he is looking through something on the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia. “I just think we should have more articles on Ethiopia. This cost me four quid. I’ll go through this, get some value out of it, then I’ll give it to Oxfam. That’s the kind of recycling I do.” Talking to Charles is a lot like surfing Wikipedia — each question is answered with an example that takes him back to his laptop and off on another tangent. He enjoys pinning down facts through “detective work”, a mixture of skim-reading scholarly books and cross-referencing with Google. At the moment, he is particularly interested in minor poets. “You never run out of them.”

As a former academic, he seems uniquely qualified to assess the reliability of Wikipedia. “You shouldn’t use it as your unique source for anything — that’s never been what encyclopaedias are for. It’s there to give you quick access to a subject. But articles with a lot of references are probably quite reliable. I put references on my articles like Christmas tree decorations,” he says with pride.

While I admire Charles’s dedication, I don’t understand why he has been prepared to devote the past three years of his life to improving Wikipedia.

“I see it as voluntary work. Somebody has to be making sure that all the right things are going on. So I just have to put in the hours.” But what drives him to put in those hours? “I find I am stretched in all my directions,” he replies. “Some of the time it’s purely academic stuff; other times it’s writing, it’s copy editing, it’s making sense of badly written articles. And it’s satisfying to pin down facts.” While Charles may be royalty in the virtual world of Wikipedia, his wife does not see the point of his dedication. “She’s not in favour of it. It’s a bone of contention,” he sighs.
The next day I go to Chelmsfordto meet 17-year-old Sarah, who has responded to a note I left on a Wikipedia noticeboard. She has amassed nearly 6,000 edits since discovering Wikipedia ten months ago. Her bedroom is like any other teenager’s, with teddy bears, Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and a calendar of the actor Jake Gyllenhaal. There is little to suggest that this is where she spends 50 hours a week updating the encyclopaedia — on top of her schoolwork.

“I’ve tried to break away from Wikipedia, and each time I fail miserably. I’m definitely a Wikiholic,” she says. Her conversation is peppered with Wikipedia acronyms, and she says she often finds herself accidentally typing e-mails in Wikitext, the markup language used to write Wikipedia articles.

“I get up at 8, check Wikipedia to see if there are any urgent messages I need to respond to, and then I go to school. Maybe I’ll check Wikipedia at break time, if there’s something I need to keep an eye on, if not I’ll just hang out with my friends.

“When I come back from school I’ll edit on and off until I go to bed,” she continues. “I volunteer at Oxfam on Saturdays, but I’ll edit from the moment I get up until I have to go to out, and then I’ll come back and edit until I go to bed — regularly until three or four in the morning.”

Sarah is taking A levels in history, English, Latin and RE, and has tried to write articles relevant to her syllabus so she can learn while she edits: “I’m trying to work on The Merchant’s Tale at the moment — that’s one of my set texts.” She used to edit Islamic articles, but gave up because they were “too contentious” and got her into week-long arguments with other editors. “Edit wars are the bad side of Wikipedia,” she laments. “You have to remain calm in the face of abuse.”
Unlike Charles, Sarah likes to focus on one article at a time, nurturing it over a period of weeks while it goes through the rigorous peer review process necessary for it to be Featured Article (FA) standard. Featured Articles are meant to demonstrate the best of Wikipedia and only a tiny proportion of articles — 0.077 per cent of the total number — have such status. Sarah has three: on Jake Gyllenhaal, the actor Austin Nichols, and the 2003 film Latter Days .

“No resource in the world is as comprehensive as my article on my idol, Jake Gyllenhaal. The pleasure you gain from that is amazing,” Sarah says. “There’s a lot of kudos in getting FA. I love it that millions of people are reading the edits that I’ve made. Although my friends think I’m mad.”

Her pantheon of heroes includes some unusual choices. She is a card-carrying Conservative — she shows me her card to prove it — and hopes to get the David Cameron article up to FA standard too. “I think he’s amazing. Tony Blair is a Featured Article, so why isn’t David Cameron? It’s just a matter of finding the time to do it. When I do, I’ll be sure to write to him and say, ‘Hey! Look what I did!’ ” Sarah has a condition called semantic pragmatic disorder, which makes social interaction difficult for her. “It’s on the autistic spectrum, but it’s very mild,” she says, advising me not to bother looking it up on Wikipedia because “the article is rubbish”. Wikipedia is allowing her to overcome it. “It’s really helped my social skills. They’ve improved so much. It’s easier to interact with people when you have their words on the screen. You learn how to talk back to them without offending them.”

Next year Sarah will go to university to study theology, and then she hopes to become an entrepreneur. “Impossible dreams make you accomplish stuff. You have to dream big,” she insists. “ ‘Imagine a world in which every person with a computer has access to the world’s knowledge’ — Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, said that — that’s what we’re doing. We are educating people about topics that would never have occurred to them. We’re changing the world.”

Angela Beesley’s world has certainly been changed by Wikipedia. A former educational researcher, Angela, 29, has gone from humble Wikipedian to internet entrepreneur, working alongside Jimmy Wales. This has made her a kind of Wikicelebrity — there is even a Wikipedia article on her. She lives in Australia, but I manage to catch her for coffee in a Colchester café while she is back in the country renewing her visa.

While Sarah concentrates on perfecting specific articles, Angela prefers to fix problems in other people’s work. She has made 45,000 edits since she stumbled on the site in 2003. “It’s mostly copy editing, helping people with formatting and trying to keep the articles consistent,” she says with an Anglo-Australian twang. “I have a watch-list of articles I know are vandalised a lot, so I keep an eye on those. Vandals tend to blank the page, or write something silly about one of their friends so they can show it to them later.”

In 2004, Angela was elected to the board of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit organisation that runs Wikipedia. “It was good timing, because at the same time I got made redundant from my day job. When that happened, I was on Wikipedia from when I got up until I went to sleep. Then I ran out of money and had to think about what to do next.”

Angela even managed to find love on Wikipedia. Her boyfriend is a programmer and “a very prominent member of the Wikipedia community”, she smiles. They got to know each other through the site for a year before meeting in person, and eventually got together when Angela went to Australia for a conference. She has since moved in with him in Melbourne.

“The best thing about Wikipedia is feeling that you are part of a community,” she says as she finishes her latte. “It’s a nice community to be part of. People accept you because you are doing good work.”

Wikipedia on Wikipedia

Wikipedia is the largest encyclopaedia compiled. It has more than six million articles, with 1.6 million in the English language version

Wikipedia began in January 2001 as a feeder project for Nupedia, an encyclopedia that had been founded ten months previously by the web portal company Bomis Inc

By the end of 2001 it had grown to 18 language editions and 20,000 articles. In 2002 its co-founder, Jimmy Wales, announced that Wikipedia would not run adverts and its URL was moved from the .com domain to its current home,

There are 250 language editions of Wikipedia, including Afrikaans, Maori, Kiswahili and Esperanto
There are more than 3.4 million registered Wikipedians, although many more edit the site anonymously. Most are male
The most edited Wikipedia article is the entry on George W. Bush, which has been revised 33,566 times. Jesus is in fourth place, with 16,010 revisions, and Adolf Hitler is seventh, with 14,555. The page on Tony Blair is the 64th most edited article
The site hit trouble in November 2005 when John Seigenthaler Sr, an American journalist, found that his Wikipedia entry contained libellous statements: an anonymous user had edited his biography to imply that Seigenthaler was involved in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy

The fact is, it’s rubbish

I have just learnt from the article on the left that there is something called semantic pragmatic disorder. Sarah advises us not to look for any information about the condition on Wikipedia “because the article is rubbish”.
My default position is that every article on Wikipedia is rubbish. When, for example, I need medical information, I go to a reputable medical site, such as the British Medical Journal or The New England Journal of Medicine. In a couple of minutes, via the BMJ, I have found what seems to be a good introduction to Sarah’s condition through the National Autistic Society.
God knows I am painfully aware of the shortcomings of newspapers when it comes to getting things right. But we do start from the premise that there is a fighting chance of accuracy emerging from the professional and commercial brutality that is the daily editorial process, rather than relying on a nether world of loner volunteer obsessives.
I often have only a minute or two to get a definitive steer on whether something presented to me as fact may be utter baloney. Why trust the vagaries of Wikipedia when there are web stalwarts such as the BBC, Know UK, the Internet Movie Data Base and the Ordnance Survey, to name but four that I consult regularly?
The published opinion of my colleague Rosemary Righter continues to hold sway in my view: Wikipedia lacks accountability, authority, scholarly credentials, accuracy and scrupulousness.
And I treasure the experience of another colleague, Martin Waller, who created the entirely fictional fat cat Sir Peter Pickles and chronicled his memoirs for several years. The moment came for the MP and serial board member to be laid to rest. His “obituary” was duly published in The Times. And witless Wikipedia put news of this “death” on the internet. Rest in pieces, Wikipedia. QED.

RICHARD DIXON Times Chief Revise Editor


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