Wikipedia and the Natural Selection of Truth

by Chris Kenton on August 26, 2009

Siamo sabbia in un soffio di vento che già se ne vaThe Internets are buzzing today over changes announced to the process of editing articles on Wikipedia, which represent a major step in the evolution of the world’s first crowdsourced encyclopedia. Moving forward, changes to articles will not only require registration, but any changes to the biographies of living people will require approval from an authorized editor. This is another big evolutionary step from what started out as a completely open encyclopedia allowing additions and edits from anyone. Between two articles, one at The New York Times and one at CNET, you can get most of the relevant history and analysis of implications. I’ve got a different angle.

I grew up surrounded by books. One entire shelf in the living room was devoted to the weighty volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which subtly took root in my mind as the tangible embodiment of objective truth. I didn’t question, until much later, the concept of an ultimate authority for the veracity of basic truths, much less any motive for manipulating dry facts. Later in life, when I followed my parents into journalism, my first internship out of college was working as a Fact Checker for a large magazine. My only job was to read draft articles line by line, and make use of every reference source imaginable to double check the truth of every stated fact. I couldn’t believe the diligence required to get a single article into print, but it taught me that even careful writers make mistakes of omission and commission–and it gave me an added sense of faith in journalism and the pursuit of objective truth.

The Internet seems to have changed all that–or to put it more accurately, the Internet has helped disabuse me of my illusions. I remember in the early days of the mainstream Web, when I could follow major news stories from new angles. I remember reading news about the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, on a translated version of Russia’s Pravda, and realizing how far truth diverges on different sides of the front line–and how much bias I had missed in the media I grew up accepting as objective truth. That was almost 15 years ago. Today, the fragmentation of media and the rise of blogs and social media has created a world of Truth on Demand–we can all subscribe to sources of information that mirror our values, our expectations, and our cultivated biases. Even the most fundamental facts can be, if not disproved, battered into irrelevance by an avalanche of counter claims and noise.

This, to me, is the greater backdrop of Wikipedia’s evolution. The institutional control of facts is disintegrating in front of our eyes, and although Wikipedia embraced that anarchy, it’s ultimately proving unworkable for a proposed universal reference of objective facts. Someone, ultimately, has to arbitrate what is published as true. The question is, how large can a community of people that accept that arbitration grow, before it divides into competing interests of what is determined to be true? And who, in the end, owns the power of arbitration? One fact The New York Times conspicuously missed in its reporting on Wikipedia is that the foundation started by Ebay’s founder, Pierre Omidyar, just gained a seat on Wikimedia’s board in return for a $2M donation.

Welcome to the natural and economic selection of truth.

Photo credit: apesara

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia August 26, 2009 at 2:22 pm

loving the navel-gazing already

Rob Macdonald August 28, 2009 at 6:43 am

Perhaps the op ed section of newspapers gives a format that can apply to Wikipedia. “Point/Counter-Point”. How seriously we take the differing points of view is another matter. As humorist Dave Barry said, newspaper columnists can wake from a dead sleep and vociferate passionately about any issue from either side of the issue, depending on what their editor wants represented.

Chris Kenton August 28, 2009 at 8:50 am

@Rob

I think you nailed a big part of the challenge right there. Wikipedia is supposed to be a reference source–a resource you turn to with confidence that it’s accurate and true. But it’s been reduced to point/counter-point, and judging from what we’re seeing in media, especially in the realm of politics, even basic facts are no longer objective if there’s someone willing to argue against it.

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