Has Wikipedia gone dark …or just more shades of grey?

So, today Wikipedia has ‘gone dark’ for a day in protest at potential US legislation and it is credit to this amazing example of altruistic crowd-sourcing that many others have also come out in sympathy. And today also, Holmes Report’s Arun Sudhaman has stirred the Pottinger by tweeting PRWeek’s report on Jimmy Wales’ recent spat with Lord Bell.

Now I also value Wikipedia – enough even to put my hand in my pocket to help the cause. And, paid agent or not, I agree it’s just wrong to ‘astro-turf’. But there’s very grey area between astroturfing and editing and I find myself agreeing almost completely with Lord Bell on this (if not necessarily his wider world view).

The Wikipedia argument about deliberate or accidental inaccuracies in their articles is that everyone has the ‘right’ to ‘engage’ and thereby get them corrected. So no harm done, the knowledge democracy prevails etc. The problem is a right is no right at all if it cannot be exercised.

First, the rules for those with a perceived (by whom?) conflict of interest are, by Wales’ own admission, unbelievably complicated and members of the editing community able or willing to take up a conflicted party’s cause relatively few. Personally, having been in the position of spending many frustrating months trying to engage to get some simple errors of fact corrected, I can tell you that it can often seem to constitute a conspiracy more than a community. I have had employees following Wikipedia’s rules to the letter, yet still subjected to abuse and accusations by those whom we were supposed to ‘address’ for help.

Second, what exactly is wrong with someone being paid to deal with this nightmare? Are they any more likely to be lying, or just plain wrong, than someone who is motivated by politics, religion, grudge or ignorance? Let alone personal malice. Is Wales engaging with them in the pages of the world’s media too? There at least , there is a right of reply, editorial boards etc.

Don’t get me wrong. Wikipedia, used properly and thoroughly cross-checked by those members of its community that really care about quality, is one of the real boons of the first Internet age – a ‘people’s encyclopedia’ free to all, up to date and accurate. But what a shame if it grinds to a halt under the weight of its own administration, lawsuits or simply loss of reputation.

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