Ulanoff: How Dangerous Is Wikipedia?

I have an admission to make: I have used Wikipedia for serious research. And in all the years I've been doing it, I've never really felt as if I've been led astray.

Now, in light of the Chase/Seigenthaler incident, I guess I should just count myself lucky.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that consists of nearly 1 million articles and has been, in large part, created by users.

It has information on virtually any topic you can imagine, and —here's where it gets interesting — if it doesn't and you know something about the topic, you can create the first entry (as long as you become a site member) and basically define that subject for the Wikipedia visitors.

Wikipedia editors might consider this a "stub" — something that has yet to be perused by the Wikipedia editors and doesn't contain enough information to be considered an article.

Moreover, each article or record is not frozen in time. Instead, it can be added to and edited by other Wikipedia visitors — that is the very definition of a "wiki." The premise is that working together, we can create an accurate online encyclopedic reference.

Aside from the way this encyclopedia is built, the other big difference between it and your more traditional desk-bound volumes is that Wikipedia can include anything.

So, random technology personalities such as Patrick Norton (of DL.TV) and PC Magazine columnist John C. Dvorak are in there. I'm guessing fans entered them, and then Norton and Dvorak cleaned up their respective articles. I'm only in there as an external link for Rob Glaser (I interviewed him in 2003).

While writing this, I actually edited the entry so that my name links to an archive of my columns. It took about 2 minutes.

But back to the Chase/Seigenthaler saga.

According to news reports, as a joke, a Nashville man named Brian Chase created a biography entry for John Seigenthaler Sr. that described the USA Today founder as having lived in the former Soviet Union for more than a decade and, prior to that, being linked to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Aside from the fact that Chase, who lost his job as a delivery-service manager because of the hoax, didn't know that people actually use Wikipedia for serious research, the ease with which he created and entered a fictitious biography and the way it simply became part of the Wikipedia fabric is frightening.

Is the Chase incident an anomaly, or is all of Wikipedia suspect?

My gut says the online encyclopedia is still a valuable tool, but it's only slightly less suspect than the millions of information blogs on the Web. They're filled with user-generated posts and comments, and a blog is only as relevant and, to some extent, as true as the number of trackbacks it has.

So a highly linked blog is perceived as relevant, and although those who link to it may not see it as "true, verifiable information," Google will play accomplice to help the blog move up the ladder as a relevant result for the given topic.

Someone searching on "Iraq War," for example, could find a blog discussion on the topic as a first-page result (Wikipedia's entry is on page 2). People who are less savvy about the Web and blogs will likely visit the blog, read it, and take the information at face value. Someone's opinion then becomes "truth."

Wikipedia, at least, is not designed to host opinion. It is supposed to be fact-based and accurate. If you decide to create an entry or edit one, you'll see this admonition:

"Content must not violate any copyright and must be based on verifiable sources. By editing here, you agree to license your contributions under the GFDL."

Still, anything built by committee has little chance of 100 percent accuracy. I spent hours crawling through Wikipedia this week looking for glaring errors. I couldn't find any.

What the Chase/Seigenthaler fiasco does prove is that people are often ignorant of the consequences of their own actions, and many learned people still have a lot to learn about the Internet. It does not, however, damn Wikipedia.

Even so, the popular online research tool will need to take a good hard look at its own vetting procedures to 1) reassure the Web community and 2) prepare for the yahoos hoping to pull their own Chase stunt.

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