Learning Wikipedia

People are taking a while to understand the Wikipedia concept. The recent Siegenthaler case points out one common misunderstanding, as a practical joke on a friend turned into an accusation of defamation.

It started as a joke and ended up as a shot heard round the Internet, with the joker losing his job and Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, suffering a blow to its credibility.

A man in Nashville has admitted that, in trying to shock a colleague with a joke, he put false information into a Wikipedia entry about John Seigenthaler Sr., a former editor of The Tennessean in Nashville.

Source: N.Y. Times (registration required)

Our students are also learning the Wikipedia concept through experimentation, fortunately with benign consequences. One day last week, a group of students were looking at Wikipedia and discussing the editing option. One asked, “They review new entries before they appear, right?” Another student decided to test this theory. She edited the entry for George Washington to include the line, “Note: George Washington was actually born a woman.” To the group’s surprise, the edit went live immediately! Lesson learned.

How often does this sort of modification happen, and how long it takes to correct each one? I located the student’s entry two days later and found that her edit had lasted all of one minute before someone reverted the article to its previous version. I then browsed further and found that this was happening several times a day. Here are some of the more choice entries from the past few days.

George Washington was obsequious, clairvoyant, and purple.

An interesting fact that most people don’t know is that George Washington is a known homosexual,i.e., he likes to have anal sex with men.

George Washington is a Communist bastard.

Washington first gained prominence by sucking like the loser he was

Washington was part of the economic and gay elite

George washington was a pothead who also was known to do crack cocain. He was gay.

Unfortunately, his daughter Emily Hollander tarnished his family reputation. A stripper with a serious heroine addiction, Ms. Hollander had 36 husbands before the age of 6 and a half. She managed to negotiate with the Southern planters to keep slavery intact, thus causing the Civil War, and set off World War II by ranting to Hitler about the “annoying Jews who sell her expensive anti-chlamydia drugs.” In the end, Ms. Hollander left 428 illegitimate children and had caused 7.28 major wars. In Vietnam, she fought valiantly but was gunned down not by bullets, but by gonorrhea that one of the Vietnamese soldiers gave her.

I’ve had several reactions to these posts. First off, I was alarmed by the frequency of homophobic posts. Second, these modifications occurred at the rate of a few per day, yet all were removed within a minute of being posted. This suggests that the erroneous posts were read by very few users, and serious readers outnumber jokers by many times. However, this is the George Washington entry, and the Siegenthaler case points out that less scrutinized modifications may remain online for longer, even indefinitely.

Edit history may also contain the shadow of a political tug-of-war. Note the following consecutive edits:

Though Washington was not a cruel man, the enslaved people at Mount Vernon were poorly housed and clothed. Many lived in flimsy shacks and had to steal burlap sacks to repair their clothes.

He was noteworthy, however, for the humane treatment of his slaves and for his growing unease with the “[[peculiar institution]]”.

The latter opinion remained as the majority opinion on this issue (though likely not the last word!).

Students use Wikipedia as they would any other online encyclopedia, usually without critical comparison to other sources. I would like to organize an activity within one of our courses in which students compare a Wikipedia entry to other popular reference sources and draw their own conclusions about the accuracy of the information presented there. As other bloggers have noted, editing the entry to improve its accuracy could even become part of the activity.


  1. ben casnocha says:

    what i love is how wikipedia is included in research guides for class projects, no questions asked. rightfully so, i think. friedrich hayek’s theory lives on…your GW examples are interesting.

  2. rkassissieh says:

    We should be asking questions about every source that we include in research guides.

  3. Ben says:

    You’ve voiced my concerns quite well Richard. I had the same thoughts last year when I first saw Will Richardson do a little editing on a Star Trek wiki during a presentation at a conference. Granted, Star Trek fanatics were on top of the mis-entry in less than a minute, and most people would consider playing with Trekkies as a benign past-time. However, it got me thinking about Wikipedia.

    I like you’re idea of using a traditional encyclopedia to compare the Wiki version, but as the number of techno-savvy Internet users grow, I suspect that the number of malicious "cyberbullies" will increase as well. Not to say that I have a pessimistic viewpoint on the whole situation, but if educators don’t approach Wikipedia and other unofficial "authoritative" websites, we run the risk of ensuring students are well prepared to handle the communication tools of the 21st century.

  4. rkassissieh says:

    This reminds me of the rise of junk email and misuse of web input forms. In the end, both led to automated systems for filtering the good from the bad, though not 100% effectively.