Sunday, July 24, 2005

Wikipedia and political debate Wikipedia and political debate

Wikipedia is growing by leaps and bounds as a reference on the Web. There were recent discussions on the Larry Lessig blog by Cass Sunstein titled "Wikipedia, Prices, and Hayek" and at the Volokh Conspiracy by Todd Zywicki titled "Sunstein on Hayek". Both posts, along with numerous attached comments, discussed how Wikipedia compares with the pricing model championed by Hayek some 60 years ago.

I am seeing an ever increasing use of Wikipedia as a cited source in political discussions, esp. in political blog comment threads. However, the Wikipedia concept seems to break down here for several reasons, making it essentially worthless as a primary resource.

First, you really don't know what someone is citing. A cited entry may have been changed since he cited it. Sure, you can go into the revision history for the page and see when it was revised, and, and then guess, based on the time the entry was cited what it contained at that point. But that first presupposes that you know how to peruse the revision history, and second, you have to assume that the Wikipedia entry was loaded immediately before the entry citing it was made. This can be problematic, esp. when you see the same posters using the same Wikipedia cites time and time again. Odds are that they reviewed the Wikipedia article one time, and have been cutting and pasting the cite ever since. And, of course, you probably don't know when they first used the cite.

Secondly, the contents of Wikipedia are dynamic. Everyone can update a given Wikipedia page. One consequence of this is that when there are varying interpretation of facts, it can become a contest between different factions on which version of the facts is portrayed on a given page at any given time. They may vary minute by minute, one minute supporting one side, and the next, another.

The result of this is that Wikipedia lends itself to the potential for organized political campaigns in the case of pages that ostensibly define and explain political topics. The faction that has the most people updating the pages is the faction that is going to have its viewpoint represented on those pages. In short, Wikipedia here has a very similar failing to online polls - those participating are self-selected, and all you have to do to win such a poll is get your partisans to participate at a higher frequency than your opponents do. Wikipedia here is similar, the partisan group working the hardest to maintain a given viewpoint on a given Wikipedia page is likely to win.

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