Home News What does Wikipedia want?

What does Wikipedia want?

Published on 10/04/2010

Yet we still need to take a long and critical look at the popular online encyclopaedia. That is the conclusion reached by delegates at an international conference in Amsterdam.

et we still need to take a long and critical look at the popular online encyclopaedia. That is the conclusion reached by delegates at an international conference in Amsterdam.

All of the Netherlands was in uproar three years ago when it emerged that Princess Mabel had censored her own Wikipedia page. The greatly exaggerated Wikipedia reports of Apple CEO Steve Jobs are also notorious. Yet gaffes like this are usually tracked down quickly.

The fact that everyone can contribute information is the key to the unprecedented success of the encyclopaedia, which boasts an astounding 68 million visitors a month. But that’s not to say there’s no supervision. Wikipedia has a whole system of rules and correction mechanisms. The main aim is to arrive at a ‘Neutral Point of View’ or ‘NPoV’, based on verifiable information.

Sockpuppets and attack pages

This policy also takes dishonourable intentions into account. Users who write under an assumed name to boost their own profile are known in wiki-speak as “sockpuppets”. Ostensibly innocent articles which contain an attack on someone are known as “attack pages”.

“The battle goes on between Wikipedia and the vandals,” says Erik Borra, one of the speakers at the Amsterdam conference. In some cases, people do succeed in voicing their opinion as fact. But more often than not, the host of 91,000 active users are on hand to ensure that they don’t get away with it. And where they fail, there’s Wikipedia’s army of automatic programs known as “bots”.

Intelligent design

But this insistence on neutrality is becoming a problem, argues communications expert Florian Cramer from Rotterdam. He takes Taiwan as an example: an issue with two irreconcilable standpoints: either it belongs to China or it doesn’t. The typical Wikipedia approach is to state in the article that there are two standpoints.”

But that means that everyone who wants to talk about the theory of evolution also has to say that Creationists believe that God made the world in six days and that we are all descended from Adam and Eve. “And that is exactly what the Creationists want. To be treated at the same level as Darwin and therefore to be seen as equally relevant.”

How neutral is neutral?

Florian Cramer believes that objectivity and universal consensus are a myth. What is more, belief in this – and by association in Wikipedia’s policy – is very much a Western notion based on the philosopher Ayn Rand. She was a passionate advocate of capitalism, and a pioneer of right-wing neoliberals such as George Bush. Not really very neutral at all.

Cramer thinks it would be better if everyone were allowed to make their own Wikipedia, including clearly stated standpoints. Visitors whose primary aim is reliability can then opt for a version that contains the least disputed articles. “Similar to what people do when they select a radio station or a newspaper.”

Conflict analysis

Erik Borra, university lecturer in New Media in Amsterdam thinks this is not necessary at all. As he sees it, one of the advantages of Wikipedia is that, in addition to the end result, the discussion surrounding it is also saved. A user is always able to see exactly how an article arrived at its present state.

“Our hypothesis is that part of that conflict over opinions can be found there” says Borra. “We go even further and argue that the conflicts on Wikipedia reflect what is going on in society at large.”

A single truth

He also rejects the notion that the encyclopaedia is actually harbouring a Western agenda. After all, Wikipedia’s search for neutrality does not mean that there is room for only one viewpoint. “The concept of a single truth has long been superseded. And that applies to Wikipedia too.”

Towards a neutral point of view:

Each Wikipedia article has a discussion page on which people can debate the changes that have been made. If agreement is not reached then a copy can be made which cannot be accessed by users. This gives contributors the freedom to modify and thrash out their differences to their hearts’ content, until all agree that the rules have been fully complied with. Once this stage is reached, the temporary copy replaces the old article.

Perro de Jong
Radio Netherlands