Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Marty Meehan and the Wikipedia controversy

Marty Meehan is the representative for Massachusett's fifth congressional district. As a Democrat he proves that stupidity in Washington is truly bi-partisan. He recently came to the attention of national newspapers not by with his voting record but with the cleansing of his bio entry on Wikipedia.

What is Wikipedia? Wikipedia is an encyclopedia in a wiki format. Okay, what's a wiki?

A wiki is a web site designed for collaborative writing. It was invented by Ward Cunningham, who released the WikiWikiWeb in 1995. Wiki comes from the Hawaiian word "wiki", which means "fast", "quick", or "to hasten". Wikis are most often used in collaborative writing projects. Basically it's just a piece of software that allows you to post some information to the web, allow other people to edit it, and allow you to track the edits. They are quite popular with writing groups and roleplaying gamers. The full history can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki.

On January 15, 2001, Wikipedia was launched. It came out of Nupedia, an online encyclopedia written by experts where the information was open content (free to use by anyone). Wikipedia follows the wiki model: anyone can add to it, and anyone can edit it.

The problem with professionally written encyclopedias is that they are at the mercy of the encyclopedia's editorial team, and it is slow to add new content. Oh, and they are usually protective of their content.

Wikipedia doesn't have these problems. Anyone can write an article. If you are an expert in Tibetan basketweaving, you can write an article on it. You don't have to prove to anyone why your article is worthy of entry in an encyclopedia. Articles can be posted quickly. Hurricane Katrina articles were created while the hurricane was still raging. You don't have to wait for a specific release cycle. By it's nature, the articles are open content: you can post links to it, or copy it and use it for your own purposes.

The biggest issue is, of course, the strength of a wiki: anyone can edit it! When you open up the encyclopedia to Tibetan basketweaving experts, you run the risk that the basketweaving expert will edit an article on astrophysics. Or, someone with a grudge against someone with a Wikipedia biographical entry could write that he was a satanic baby eater.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia itself:
Wikipedia is regularly cited in the mass media and academia, sometimes critically, and sometimes to praise it for its free distribution, constant editing, and diverse coverage, not to mention its multilingual dimensions. It is often cited not as a subject but as a source on other subjects. Editors are encouraged to uphold a policy of "neutral point of view" under which notable perspectives are summarized without an attempt to determine an objective truth. Wikipedia's status as a reference work has been controversial since its open nature allows vandalism, inaccuracy, inconsistency, uneven quality, and unsubstantiated opinions. It has also been criticized for systemic bias, preference of consensus or popularity to credentials, and a perceived lack of accountability and authority when compared with traditional encyclopedias. But the scope and detail of its articles, as well as its constant updates, have made it a useful reference source for millions.

The whole article is found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia.

At the end of 2005, journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. found that his biography had been vandalized. In May of 2005, someone edited his biography, suggesting that Seigenthaler was involved in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. It was months before the bogus information was discovered by Seigenthaler. His outrage provoked Wikipedia critics.

Seigenthaler was right to be upset, and the ease with which someone could make such remarks is a flaw with the system. He has a point. His biography is an obscure topic, which is likely why the error wasn't found. On the other hand, it was pointed out that he could have edited the article himself, but chose not to in order to point it out to the media. He spoke out against Wikipedia, but his comments gave the site additional exposure. Some changes have been made to address this problem, but the site is still susceptible to vandals.

(Interestingly, a study by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia has an error rate about the same as the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

For the full article on the controversy, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

This brings us to Marty Meehan. On July 18, 2005 someone on his staff edited his Wikipedia biography. There were a couple of things that Meehan didn't like stressed:
  • Meehan said he would run for no more than four consecutive congressional terms when he ran for office in 1992. He was re-elected every two years since, including in 2004. 2004, of course, marks his fifth term. He says he reneged on his promise because to stick with it would be a disservice to his constituents.
  • Meehan is an advocate of campaign finance reform. He sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (called the "Shays-Meehan Bill" in the House and the "McCain-Feingold Bill" in the Senate). Meehan, though, seems to be part of the problem. His organization has almost $5 million on hand. He raised over $3 million for his 2004 campaign but only spent about $460,000. His opponent collected and spent less than $31,000. On average, incumbents raise just over $1 million while challengers raise less than $200,000.
Someone in his office didn't like these comments mentioned in Meehan's bio, so they changed it. The change was noted and Matt Vogel, his chief of staff, admitted on January 27, 2006 that he authorized Meehan's biography to be replaced with a staff-written biography.

Not only is Meehan a hypocrite, that fact is now more widely disseminated now than if his staff hadn't even heard of Wikipedia.

Some folks have pointed to the Meehan case as more proof of the flaws in Wikipedia. Others have pointed out that the system worked in this case. Meehan's tampering was noted and posted. Now there is a section in his biography about the controversy.

I, personally, love Wikipedia. It's fast and convenient, and often has more depth in its articles than similar online sites. With any piece of research, you have to look at the footnotes. I read a lot of history books. I don't have time to research the footnotes; I'm lucky if I have time to find a review of the book. With Wikipedia, many article footnotes are links to sites, making it easier to check the veracity. If an article is biased, it is often labeled as such. Every article has a section where people can leave comments. Unlike a traditional encyclopedia, Wikipedia is meant to be interactive and a "living document".

As long as Wikipedia can make it through its growing pains, and can get past the current "credibility gap", it has an excellent chance of supplanting old school research sources. That's scary to some, but I think it's a positive thing. It's about time people started thinking critically about things they read. It's about time people stopped being spoon fed their information.


Wakaad said...

Hi, My name is Peter Meehan
and im doing my blog on meehan's on the world wide web, and i would appreciate it if i could use you for my third post, seeing that you are blooging on the same site as me

Allan Goodall said...

Sure, no problem! Go ahead!