Truth and fact are at the core of an encyclopedia, be it “user-edited” or otherwise. Wikipedia is hollow at the core, because it subordinates truth to consensus and a passive compliance that it calls “civility.” This flaw has crippled its credibility, and will continue to do so as time marches on.
A thicket of Wikipedia “pillars,” “policies,” and guidelines give lip service to the truth, but the reality is different: Wikipedia’s users routinely remove verified facts from articles, and their actions are routinely upheld by administrators. As a result, no Wikipedia article can be considered reliable by its reader.
This is increasingly apparent in colleges, which have begun to forbid students from citing Wikipedia in their research. The general public is catching on as well, as a consequence of a series of revelations including a senior Wikipedia administrator’s fabrication of academic credentials (with the knowledge of Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales) and the revision of encyclopedia entries by corporations and government entities… including the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Wikipedia editors and administrators give a variety reasons, although sometimes no reasons at all, for Bowdlerizing articles and electronically blocking those who try to restore facts. Stripped to their essentials, those reasons boil down to some facts conflicting with the wishes of an ad hoc consensus of Wikipedians, generally a group (or “cabal”) of insiders. I would argue that the reasons given, infuriating as they might occasionally be, are almost beside the point. The critical issue for Wikipedia is that facts are merely inputs, and the truth is merely a perspective.
In virtually any system, it’s inevitable that various factions will arise, each with its own opinions. That’s not only tolerable, but if administered with skill and imagination, it is energetic. But factionalism delivers benefits only to a fact-based system, where two plus two equals four. In a fact-based system, a faction can own its opinion but not its facts. On Wikipedia, where opinions are ostensibly forbidden by a “No Point of View” rule, a faction’s only tool for advancing its opinions is to manipulate facts.
When facts are subordinate to consensus and passive compliance (”civility”), they’ll be manipulated at will. When facts are manipulated, there are no facts at all. Aside from the mortal damage to its credibility, a fact-free oeuvre poses a serious threat to Wikipedia, which operates in a fact-driven legal system that takes a dim view of those who play fast and loose with the truth.
Libel is defamation by means of the written word. Truth is an absolute defense to libel damages. If Wikipedia pursued and valued truth, as opposed to simply claiming it does, it could confidently include truthful criticisms, and even condemnations, of individuals and corporations in its articles. Since Wikipedia is indifferent to truth, it cannot argue that any particular fact asserted is actually a fact; rather, it must pull in its horns, even to the point of censoring facts from its pages.
Wikipedia’s response to the mortal danger of a libel judgment is its “BLP” (biographies of living persons) policy, which makes extraordinary concessions to the subjects of its articles. The BLP policy opens the door to the kind of obfuscation of fact, corporate apple-polishing, and government manipulation that has recently been found there. The policy is an implicit declaration that Wikipedia can’t be trusted because it doesn’t trust itself. Wikipedia doesn’t trust itself because, virtually by definition, it can’t trust itself. You cannot determine fact by a consensus of amateurs, and Wikipedia’s insiders know it.
A factional and fact-free system is prone to corruption, and you see it in Wikipedia’s administration. I use the term “administration” loosely, because in spite of there being a rising ratio of administrative activity to creative activity at Wikipedia, the organization is not administered in any systematic way.
There are rules at Wikipedia, but those rules are poorly written, and enforced in a contradictory, capricious, and chaotic manner. The result is that, in a very real sense, there are no rules. Wikipedia is a classic ad hocracy, operated a series of whims. Many, if not most, of Wikipedia’s administrators are teenagers, and like teenagers everywhere Wikipedia’s teenagers are prone to impulse and immaturity, and to ignoring mere formalities like “pillars” and “policies” as they might apply to themselves.
Thus, writers who stick up for facts on Wikipedia will often find themselves up against a phalanx of other writers determined to omit them, along with one or more administrators who are equally determined to omit them. Those administrators, who have been granted the ability to search Internet addresses, change articles, and exclude individuals from Wikipedia, are under no particular pressure to refrain from using their electronic tools.
Indeed, Wikipedia’s culture encourages blocking of “troublemakers,” holding consensus and “civility” above fact. As is often the case in organizations in general, insiders who are accused of misusing their authority are rarely contravened or disciplined. At Wikipedia, it gets worse: its founder, Jimbo Wales, has serious ethical problems of his own and is therefore in no position to hold others up to meaningful standards.
In mid-2006, a 24-year-old Wikipedia administrator, Ryan Jordan, gave an interview to The New Yorker magazine in connection with a profile of Wikipedia that appeared in the magazine. In that interview Jordan falsified his credentials, as he had done on Wikipedia itself.
Prior to Jordan’s fraud being exposed, Wales placed Jordan on an exclusive committee within Wikipedia, and then hired Jordan as an executive at Wikia, a venture-financed, for-profit company formed to capitalize on the success of the websites based on Wikipedia’s software. In the hiring process, Wales had to have encountered Jordan’s fraud, which was not trivial but included claims to hold jobs that he’d never held.
When The New Yorker exposed Jordan’s fraud, Wales defended Jordan. Only when The New York Times documented rising dissent within Wikipedia did Wales cut Jordan loose, issuing a misleading statement implying that he had been unaware of Jordan’s lies. In the debate that surrounded the issue, many Wikipedia administrators defended Jordan. They, and Wales, are still at Wikipedia.
Wikipedia doesn’t work because Wikipedia can’t work. It won’t be fixed by the departure of Jimmy Wales, if it happens, or by the departure of a particular administrator or the repair of an article or a series of them. Wikipedia has a systemic issue: it must address the hollowness at its core, and must do so in a way that is authentic and credible. I highly doubt that this can, or will, happen. In the meantime, people who care about the truth must tell the truth: about themselves, about life, and about Wikipedia.