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Wikipedia uncovered

Posted on 12 Jul 2007 at 10:14

Credentials? What credentials?

You might expect the Admins to be subject specialists or experts in their chosen field, but this often isn't the case. While Encarta has professional editors with academic backgrounds, Admins are free to intervene in any subject, regardless of their qualifications - if they have any, that is. Wikipedia demands no credentials: Admins are Admins because they make substantial contributions to Wikipedia and because they're trusted by the community. Even Wikipedia's Gerard describes the community (tongue-in-cheek) as "a bunch of nerds who think writing an encyclopedia is really cool. We're quite pleased the world likes the result."

Here's how it works: prospective Admins are nominated, frequently by themselves, on the Wikipedia: Requests for Adminship page. Again, consensus is key - the nomination will get postings of support, opposition and neutrality, and nominees are expected to answer any questions or comments. After seven days, a Bureaucrat (one of the 14 or so highest-ranking Wikipedians) decides where the consensus lies. There's something wonderfully Utopian about this process; users are judged purely on the edits they've made and the work done. However, it leads to accusations that Wikipedia promotes cliques with shared interests.

And what worries Wikipedia's critics is there's no way of knowing who the Admins are. Some user pages give personal details, but others give little more than a username and a vague list of interests. Cultural, religious or political biases can be difficult to ascertain as long as the Admin isn't blatant in their promotion of a particular point of view. It also means users can pretend to be someone else entirely.

The famous example is Ryan Jordan. Under the username of Essjay, Jordan was an Admin and influential Bureaucrat, claiming to be a tenured professor of religion with a PhD in theology and a degree in canon law. In fact, he was a 24-year-old college drop-out, a fact that embarrassingly came to light in an interview with The New Yorker.

The flipside of this is that Wikipedia can be a hostile environment for genuine experts. Wikipedians dispute this: "Anyone claiming we're anti-expert has to explain why we have as many as we do," says Gerard. But pages such as Wikipedia: Expert Retention tell a different story; one of academics and professionals exhausted by cranks, anti-elitist grumbles and senseless wiki-lawyering.

Cleaning up its act

Wales is plainly aware that something must be done. He's discussed new tools and features, including a development of the long-promised stable versions feature whereby editors can define a particular page version as stable and make this the page that browsers see first, while enabling all users to edit a live version of the article. Also on the table is a procedure whereby editors who choose to disclose credentials go through a verification process. The same would go for users being considered for senior positions within the community.

Even though this last proposal is fairly watery ("the suggested verification approach isn't mandated and no sanctions can be taken against an editor who chooses, for any reason, not to participate," Wales' essay on the policy reads), it has angered some Wikipedians. Many prefer the rival "Ignore All Credentials" proposal. On an encyclopedia obsessed with verification and neutrality, who cares about expertise?

The challenge for Wikipedia is this: how do you rein in the more disruptive impulses of the community without weighing it down in even more bureaucracy? As Stephen Bury, head of European & American Collections at the British Library, tells us, "Wikipedia is potentially a good thing - it provides a speedier response to new events, and to new evidence on old items." Although whether the world really needed another opinion-filled article on the Virginia shootings just hours after it happened is debatable.

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