Wikians R Us and Some Folks Don't Like that Very Much

Earlier this week, Matt Drudge featured an odd news item about mysterious threats between Florida witches; threats communicated in notes wrapped around rocks and written in ancient Theban script. Of course, maybe the first thing everyone who read the story thought (I did.) was, why not use Wiccan powers to threaten each other? I mean, a note wrapped around a rock thrown through a window - how Muggle-ish.

I've known some Wiccans and I know, of course, that they do not do those kinds of things, but I grew up before it was socially acceptable to be anything other than what everyone else seemed to be, and I've apparently got my built-in preconceptions, just like others. But it was an unfortunate item to appear in any popular media at the same time as the biggest press that the Wikipedia has ever gotten--and pretty negative press at that.

I have no doubt that the huge number of Americans who still think that Saddam Hussein was the evil mind behind 9/11 will make the connection: Wicca/Wiki, and for a long time to come have bad attitudes toward a great tool.

I've found that on campus a person's knowledge of Wikipedia, prior to these events, varied widely among specific niches. If you are an information technologist of the CIO- or webmaster-type, you probably knew about it due to the work you perform every day. One of the two other user groups who knew of Wikipedia were the youngest students on campus, Millennials (basically students age 21 or younger), who have found it to be the most useful research tool available to them for school papers. The other group is faculty members, some of whom approve of the concept heartily, but many of whom have been annoyed by the fact that their students are using this non-verified major source of information.

Oh, and research librarians, of course. They know everything. Maybe writers, too: It's certain that when I want to learn about something new that is more focused than I can get to in a single Google search, I am off to Wikipedia at once, at least as a place to start.

But it has until this week remained relatively unknown to most people. Nearly every person who I've ever mentioned Wikipedia to in the past couple of months has said "Huh?" or "What?"

But I had spent some time in Wikipedia, and have noticed that some of the articles about higher education institutions contain information that the institutional leaders might not think appropriate. That led me to lead the "SCUP Links" section of the Society for College and University Planning's "SCUP Email News" weekly (free) email newsletter each of the previous two weeks with a note that folks should take a closer look at the "article" in Wikipedia about their own college or university. (This was before the recent news broke.)

There's no way for me to measure it, of course, but I'd be willing to bet now that way more than half of the people who have heard of Wikipedia have a negative attitude about it. And those are probably the people who know the least about it, who have just learned of it. What's the story behind the negative press for Wikipedia?

Wikipedia depends on communities of people who congregate around "articles," each person getting alerts about changes to the article and as a whole the community ensures that radical changes that are incorrect are fixed almost instantly.

In this first recent case, an article was created by a single person and no one else ever took a look at it. No one went there, no one read it, there was no community of watchers to correct miss-statements. It was about a man named John Seigenthaler, who was professional colleague of Robert F. Kennedy. The article claimed that he was involved in Kennedy's assassination, and contained a lot of other false information as well.

Then, along comes John Seigenthaler himself. Most likely the first person other than the author of the article to read it and he was very unhappy. The
story of his frustration at trying to find our who posted the false information is a telling one. As the story hit, additional false information in Wikipedia biographies came to light. Here are some of the headlines that ensued:

Wikipedia's accuracy challenged again
Podshow Founder Actions Lead To Questions About Wikipedia ...
Wikipedia's Open-Source Licks Open Wound
Wikipedia Bio Claimed Slanderous
The Danger of Wikipedia
Wikipedia: A Techno-Cult of Ignorance

Can you doubt that this is resonating in the subconscious minds of at least some people and connecting up with their attitudes about witches(!)?

With regard to the false biography, I think that the Wikipedia folks are making all the right moves, so far, including the most important one: Registration is now required to become authorized to make changes to Wikipedia articles. I know because I went there and was grievously disappointed to find that there was no article on Terry Calhoun.

As the Wikipedia founder said in
one recent article: Any place where the general public is allowed to freely express their opinion without having any sort of prior approval from authority - it is dangerous." (Those of us who run email lists and participate in online forums already knew that.)

But a lot of damage has been done. And that "Wiki" name may have to change. As well, Wikipedia may have to hire some lawyers and PR folks.

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