Think this year's presidential debates have been rough? Check out Wikipedia.
October 14, 2004
Wikis, touted as the next big thing in online content, have become the latest battleground in the presidential election as users of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the best-known wiki, squabble over entries related to President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts.
Disputes over content related to Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have been growing since August, prompting the popular reference site's administrators to warn users last month that election-related entries may be the focus of "contention and debate - possibly diminishing their neutrality."
Wikis like Wikipedia are web sites that encourage users to share information by allowing them to freely write and edit content.
Wikipedia community members held an online town hall meeting last month to try to solve the disputes over the entries, to no avail. Meanwhile, Wikipedia's administrators are periodically "freezing" contentious pages - locking out any edits for brief periods of time. Since May, Wikipedia's Mr. Kerry entry has been frozen at least seven times, while its Mr. Bush page has been locked down almost as often.
Bigger than Jesus
Indeed, entries for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have become the most contentious in the history of Wikipedia, said Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales, president of the Wikipedia Foundation, which is based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry have created even more debate than entries for sex and religion. As of October 8, Wikipedia's President Bush entry had been tweaked 3,953 times. Its entry for Senator Kerry had been modified 3,230 times. By contrast, Wikipedia's article on Jesus has only been edited 1,855 times since the site's inception in 2001.
"George Bush is no question a controversial president," said Mr. Wales. "But he's also the only president we've had since the Wikipedia began." A click on a link from Wikipedia's entry for Mr. Bush reveals users debating topics such as the president's college grade point average, allegations of cocaine abuse, and Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
The stakes in these online disputes are high. Wikipedia has become a popular online reference for students, academics, and even journalists. Its articles can be among the first results returned by search sites such as Yahoo! and Google. New search site Clusty.com, launched earlier this month, even features an "encyclopedia" page dedicated to helping users comb through the free encyclopedia's content.
Disputes could make wikis stronger
As Wikipedia has become more important, critics have attacked the reliability of Wikipedia's system. Some users have even deliberately inserted errors into Wikipedia entries to test how quickly users can detect and remove them. The results have been mixed, with some finding their errors are fixed quickly, and others finding erroneous changes made to less popular entries persisting for longer periods of time.
Members of the Wikipedia community have proposed several fixes. Wikipedia's Mr. Wales has said that next year he will begin using editors to review the web site's content for accuracy and allow users to rate contributions to the encyclopedia for their quality. "It's complex because it's a social community, and feelings can be hurt," said Mr. Wales, but he added that the change will be critical when Wikipedia content is put on more permanent media, such as CD-ROM disks.
Fans argue that Wikipedia's open system taps into the collective wisdom of large groups of people to root out error and minimize bias. While anyone can make a change to any entry, the discussions around those changes are open, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program in New York City. "It's like the security of sidewalks," said Mr. Shirky. "If everyone shares a little the sidewalk is safe."
Indeed, the tussling at Wikipedia doesn't faze those who hope to take wiki technology corporate. Joe Kraus, CEO of Jotspot, a Palo Alto, California, company trying to commercialize wikis, said that "the true brilliance of Wikipedia and wikis in general is that [they] allow people to edit pages and allow them to add perspective."
By that measure, at least, you could count the Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry entries as Wikipedia's most successful.