Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Will the government regulate Wikipedia? (Or will it have to stop calling itself an encyclopedia?)

(Update: probably not. But IPs might have to make some changes.)

Seigenthaler brought up a new point in his CNN debatge with Wales.

Where I’m worried about this leading next year: we’re going into an election year. Every politician is going to find himself or herself subjected to the same sort of outrageous commentary that hit me and hits others. I’m afraid we’re going to get regulated media as a result of that, and I tell you, I think if you can’t find it -- both fix the history as well as the biography pages -- I think it’s going to be real trouble and we’re going to have to fight to keep the government from regulating it.

Siegenthaler's right that election years can wreak havok on online communities (I saw it happen to Metafilter), and while wikipedia weathered the 2004 elections fine, it's roughly an order of magnitude more popular now.

The question, of course, is not whether wikipedia will become useless (it won't) or whether its credibility will be compromised (it will -- though it's about time people understood the site for the collective playground it is). The question is whether vandals will kick up enough of a storm that politicians will take action (or vice versa? :p ). This is in some ways a convergence between the old world and the new: most politicians are over fifty and can't be expected to have an intuitive feel for room-with-500-people-in-it online interaction. Will they get pissed off enough about vandalism to impose controls on, at the very least, the way wikipedia describes itself?

Even if it's nothing more than that, it would suck. As I've said before, Wikipedia has a structural contradiction (or perhaps a fine line to walk). In order for people to care enough to put in high quality edits, they have to feel like they're contributing to a grand project, not an I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-An-Encyclopedia; but it's helpful if readers don't think of the site as an exact equivalent of paper encyclopedias -- they have to critically examine articles, figure out possible reasons they read the way they do.


Anonymous said...

If some kid vanadalizes the side of a store with graffiti, libeling you in the process, you don't sue the shop-owner for having an exposed brick surface.

Ben Yates said...

True, but wikipedia doesn't represent itself as a store wall, or even as a store; it represents itself as an encyclopedia. To middle aged people "encyclopedia" means "this content has been vetted by experts" -- they assume everyone will take seriously anything written on wikpiedia.

(This wasn't a problem in the early days, of course, when everyone reading wikipedia knew what "wiki" meant and therefore saw the "anyone can edit" connotation directly in the title. Growing pains.)