How can you trust the truth of Wikipedia’s articles if you can’t even trust the truth about their own history?
If you are like most people, you aren’t quite sure about how Wikipedia started. So you start off by checking out Wikipedia’s own entry on History of Wikipedia. You would assume that it would be correct, because they should know their own history. Then we get the question of trust. Do we trust that Wikipedia is accurate about itself? They have a policy on Neutral Point of View, so in theory we should be able to trust them. But at the same time, would we trust anyone when talking about themselves? A little research will uncover that Larry Sanger considers himself to be co-founder with Jimbo Wales, while Jimbo Wales considers himself to be the sole founder. Wikitruth, who seems to know a lot about such things, highlights how important that issue is. So you might be led to believe that that is the only issue, and that, thankfully, it is now listed in some form at least, in the article about the history of Wikipedia.
The problem is that there is more to it than that.
In a Wikipedia Review post on 24 August 2007, Blissyu2 highlighted that the article on Wikipedia’s history was missing a lot of important information. But the real highlight was discovered in the reply from Glassbeadgame, which highlighted the real scandal - that the first version of History of Wikipedia (at least the first version copied over from the old database) had highlighted that neither Jimbo Wales or Larry Sanger were the actual founders of Wikipedia. Indeed, whilst it is true that Jimbo Wales started Nupedia by himself, and Larry Sanger gave Jimbo Wales the idea for Wikipedia, it actually wasn’t Larry Sanger’s idea in the first place. The founding idea came from someone else entirely. It came from a person called Ben Kovitz.
“I suggested to Larry that he make Nupedia into a wiki. I said, instead of trying to prevent error and bias, to openly invite error and bias and make it very easy for people to correct them. I believe my exact words were to allow “any fool in the world with Internet access” to freely modify any page on the site. I told Larry to do the exact opposite of everything he’d been doing with Nupedia. No solid foundation, just endless chaos and conflict. No review process prior to publication, just go live immediately with every edit as soon as it’s in the computer. I suggested that this might actually lead to better reliability and richer content than the careful, circumspect approach.”
So if it was very clearly Ben Kovitz’s idea, why don’t they acknowledge it?Â Well, technically they do. In their article on History of Wikipedia, there is a tiny little sub-section that you’ve probably overlooked, titled “Formulation of the idea“, which states, rather quietly, that it was Ben Kovitz’s idea.
Did you miss that bit? It sounds quite a lot different to the earlier version, which had in its very first paragraph that it was all Ben Kovitz’s idea:
“Wikipedia had its origin in a conversation between two old Internet friends, Larry Sanger, editor-in-chief of Nupedia, and Ben Kovitz, a computer programmer and polymath, on the evening of January 2, 2001, in San Diego, California. Kovitz is (or was) a [Ward's Wiki] regular. When Kovitz explained the basic wiki concept to Sanger over dinner, Sanger immediately saw that the wiki format would be an excellent format whereby a more open, less formal encyclopedia project could be pursued.”
Indeed, if you go through the revision history, you can see how this truth-changing happened.
For 3 years from 2 January 2001, that version of the truth existed more or less untouched. Then on 15 February 2004, under the guise of “cleaning it up”, it all started to get hidden. On 27 June 2004, under the guise of a “minor edit”, Wikipedia’s UK spokesperson David Gerard made a massive change to the article, which suggested that Ben Kovitz really had nothing to do with it. This change, more or less, remains to this day.
If we were to speculate why Ben Kovitz’s involvement was minimised, we could suggest that it was because he was not an active contributor to Wikipedia. He wasn’t an administrator, certainly not an editor in chief, and they felt that he didn’t deserve enough recognition.
Similarly, after Larry Sanger left in 2004, and especially after he began to be quoted criticising Wikipedia, his own role was minimised. It was only restored under pressure from numerous quarters.
This truth-changing is repeated when Wikipedia hired a lawyer, Brad Patrick, to represent them. As a reward, he got his own article on Wikipedia. However, after he quit in March 2007, his article was deleted.
So the moral of the story is that if you help Wikipedia out, it helps you out. If you work for Wikipedia, you get your own article, get articles written about you in a positive way and you may get to change truth in your favour. Once you leave, or become critical of it, let alone if you are banned, you can expect all of those articles to be either deleted, or else to represent you in a negative way.
Can we trust Wikipedia if we cannot even trust its integrity with regards to writing about itself? How can we trust the validity of any of its content? If anyone who is involved in it wants a certain version of truth (or an outright lie) to be pushed, it can be.