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The World and Wikipedia

Just published, September 2009 in Britain, October 2009 in USA, by Siduri Books.

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Andrew Dalby talks about The World and Wikipedia on BBC Radio 4's Start The Week: Monday 14 December

More about me * My Wikipedia user page * My biography on Wikipedia

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Rosemary Righter, the World, and Wikipedia

... another journalist on The Times, the columnist Rosemary Righter, tried creating a user account in 'this intellectual lunatic asylum' to see how easy it would be. She called herself Mickmouse. 'In the wacky world of Wikipedia,' she reported as a self-certified inmate, 'the missing bits are these: accountability, authority, scholarly credentials, accuracy and scrupulousness ... to claim that this is an encyclopaedia (and, further, to declare its aim to be "Britannica or better" quality) is to hold learning in contempt.' She made no edits, however.

Like many British journalists, many U.S. conservatives and libertarians had until that point known nothing about Wikipedia. Most of them now decided that they didn't like it ...

The End of the World and Wikipedia

... even though Wikipedia is ahead with the news when something has happened, you won't rely on Wikipedia for the first news of what's about to happen. I can tell you now that when the end of the world is imminent an interesting discussion will kick off at Talk:Risks to civilization, humans and planet Earth. Watching the page itself, however, will be no help to you at all. Anonymous and unsourced edits will be made, and reverted; sourced edits will be made, and reverted; eventually the page will be protected, probably by J.delanoy. Then the lights will go out.

More extracts below ...

The World and Wikipedia

You can order it now:

The Wikipedia paradox

... no new revelation of the the vulnerability of Wikipedia to non-neutral edits emerged from the Congressional staffers affair. The real revelation was the childishness and lack of scruple of the politicians and their staffers: as Marty Meehan frankly said, such activities were a waste of energy and an error in judgment. Sometimes such edits last minutes or hours, as the edits to Gil Gutknecht and Norm Coleman did; sometimes months, like the revised Marty Meehan biography. They leave a bad smell: discussions on talk pages that never go away, bans, blocks and (in certain cases) press reports that damage the very cause that the editor aimed to support. It can't be known whether the publicity over Congressional edits ("Gutknecht joins Wikipedia tweakers") was a decisive factor for Gutknecht's 2006 re-election campaign. At any rate it's a fact that Gutknecht lost his election.

There's a paradox at the heart of Wikipedia. The articles, which are supposed to become definitive and stable, are in reality endlessly mutable; an added detail may very soon disappear again. But the talk pages, which seem so ephemeral and forgettable, are in reality permanent. However silly and inconsequential the talk may be, however potentially embarrassing to editors or to the people they are arguing about, it's preserved and displayed for years ...

Turducken, the Wall Street Journal, and Wikipedia

... the Wall Street Journal website cited Wikipedia as its source for information on "turducken", a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. The Journal admitted that some of its information was "courtesy of Wikipedia's highly informative Turducken entry," and its reporter added: "I'm not making this up. Although, I'll admit that somebody on Wikipedia might have." Jimmy Wales's comment was: "Well, what other source would you use? Britannica doesn't cover this nonsense." The Turducken article is lip-smackingly good and fully deserves the Wall Street Journal's tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement ...

Reality, Sciences Po, and Wikipedia

... examples of dubious information on the French Wikipedia. Tony Blair's French biography had asserted that he was a Catholic. The doubtful statements had survived for "several weeks", the journalist claimed, and they had been deliberately inserted by Pierre Gourdain and four other postgraduate journalism students at the highly respected Paris grande école usually known by its nickname of Sciences Po.

Tony Blair was of very wide interest at that time; the article was constantly visited and was being watched by several editors. How could the claim of his Catholicism have survived so long? The answer is that it was plausible and had a certain validity: Blair was already known to be attracted to Catholicism, and if the claim had appeared seven months later it would have been verifiably true. The dubious detail was first inserted at 10.02 on 2 May 2007. It was removed seconds later by DocteurCosmos, with the comment Vraiment? At 10.14 it was inserted again. DocteurCosmos may have felt sufficiently uncertain on this second occasion to let the information stay until someone else came along to confirm or deny it.

Reality, Philippe Manœuvre, and Wikipedia

... On the French Wikipedia at 08.49 on 17 April 2008 the biography of a journalist and television personality, Philippe Manœuvre, was edited anonymously to include the statement that he died on the evening of the 18 April (one day in the future, that is). The edit was reverted (also anonymously) after 39 minutes, but the media news website C'est OFF got to hear of it, verified that Manœuvre was still among the living, and published the item gleefully at 14.23: "Wikipedia buries Philippe Manœuvre and spreads false rumours". Manœuvre himself, a well-known figure and no stranger to controversy, was quite naturally disturbed to learn that his death had been anonymously 'predicted'. He had no way of knowing whether to take the announcement as a threat ...

Haaretz, Sue Gardner and Wikipedia

... Haaretz reported a conference at which specific Wikipedia pages were discussed: "Eli Hacohen [of Tel Aviv University] showed how Hamas is not defined as a terrorist organization in the first paragraph ... Hacohen also documented his attempts to define Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a Holocaust-denier. Each time he included his remarks on Wikipedia, users and editors removed the reference - despite Ahmadinejad's frequent and public Holocaust denials. On a related entry, Hacohen also noted that Wikipedia defines David Irving - a known Holocaust denier - as a historian, although his credentials are recognized by no one but himself."

In spite of the Haaretz claim, the opening paragraphs of Hamas manage to strike a balance while including (as the opinion of certain governments) the phrase "terrorist organization". Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contains, in the introductory paragraphs, the words "He has also been condemned for describing the Holocaust as a myth, which has led to accusations of anti-semitism. In response to these criticisms, Ahmadinejad said 'No, I am not anti-Jew, I respect them very much.'" This passage is disarmingly clear, in spite of the Haaretz claim; it has four footnotes and is followed by lengthy discussion later in the article. The David Irving article defines Irving in the opening sentence, unarguably, as a British writer specializing in the military history of World War II; to this, in spite of the Haaretz claim, is attached a long footnote explaining why his self-definition as 'historian' has been widely disputed, and there is extended discussion of his revisionist writings on the Holocaust. Although they are very frequently edited, the emphases in the initial paragraphs of these three articles have not changed significantly in recent months.

So, assuming that Hacohen made specific and valid observations, Haaretz has reported them in a confused way. Sue Gardner, the Wikimedia Foundation's executive director, was perfectly justified in saying, as widely quoted, that she was "quite comfortable" with Wikipedia's coverage in these cases. Haaretz's claim that "errors" were found (a claim uncritically repeated by other commentators) seems, on the basis of these examples, to be embroidery. On the same basis, Wikipedia, naturally enough, has done better than Haaretz at approximating an international view, if in these subject areas such a thing as an international view can be dreamed of.

The uses of Wikipedia

... In researching the contacts of the Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos I found I needed to know a few details about a folk music collector of the 1920s named Melpo Merlier. In the whole of Wikipedia I could find only three mentions of her name, all of them on the Greek Wikipedia, with no added information. There was very little information elsewhere on the Web. The best I could do, around 14.00 on 13 October 2007, was to turn those three mentions into redlinks. There was just a chance that whoever came across one of them and knew something about Merlier would begin the article, turning my redlinks blue. I wasn't hopeful, and I was slightly amazed to get a message on my English Wikipedia userpage less than two hours later, at 15.54: "A small article about Melpo Merlier is ready on greek wiki in case you are interested, since you added a red link. Greetings - Kalogeropoulos." Now that's wiki magic.

The Guardian, Shane Fitzgerald, and Wikipedia

... the route by which it spread was exactly the same as in the first known case of journalistic dependence on Wikipedia, six years earlier. Sure enough, it was The Guardian. The Maurice Jarre obituary in that paper was written by Patrick O'Connor and appeared on 31 March 2009. It opened with a verbatim quotation: "My life has been one long soundtrack. Music was my life, music brought me to life," and it closed with another: "When I die there will be a final waltz playing in my head and that only I can hear." Both were lifted from the Wikipedia article on Maurice Jarre, where Shane Fitzgerald had inserted them soon after Jarre's death (and, just two minutes later, RayAYang had flagged them as requiring verification). Both of these quotations were Fitzgerald's inventions.

On 3 April The Guardian inserted one of its many punctilious corrections (this one is now visible at the foot of the online version of the obituary): "These quotes appear to have originated as a deliberate insertion in the composer's Wikipedia entry in the wake of his death on 28 March, and from there were duplicated on various internet sites." By clever choice of words the newspaper avoided admitting that Patrick O'Connor relied on Wikipedia and that those other internet sites relied on The Guardian ...

Bush, Obama, the World, and Wikipedia

... the rules of engagement changed somewhat when Barack Obama was elected to succeed George W. Bush. For example: ever since 2 January 2006 Wikipedia had a page Criticism of George W. Bush, begun by CastAStone as a part of an effort to reduce the size of the George W. Bush main page. Several thousand revisions later, on 13 March 2009, it was a taut piece containing 8500 duly-referenced words (and there was even an equivalent article on the Arabic Wikipedia), but for some reason dissatisfaction was beginning to arise. On that day Sceptre proposed a merger with Public image of George W. Bush, a tangentially related topic; three days later QueenofBattle even waded in with a speedy delete tag, a rare move for a hard-working page that had given pleasure for three years. This did not stick, but the merger went ahead on 19 March and lots of juicy details concerning various attacks on Bush's personality and behaviour disappeared in the process; ChildofMidnight tried to rescue one such, but could not find the necessary citation in time.

Considering the strength and apparent popularity of the article, discussion of its impending deletion was astonishingly muted. One note is heard in the distant background. "It shows you show badly slanted the admins really are. If you don't believe me, ask yourself, where is the 'Criticisms of Barack H. Obama' page?" a newbie asked rhetorically. "'Criticism of Barack Obama' was speedily deleted, an older hand replied, and a prefect immediately chipped in with the decree that "all 'Criticism of ...' pages are the result of lazy editing or agenda-based editing."

The prefect didn't want to admit it, but the newbie was on target. The rules that allowed Criticism of George W. Bush for three years have been hastily reinterpreted and the page has been dismantled, all in order to head off demand for a parallel page 'Criticism of Barack Obama' ...

Conservative Central Office, the World, and Wikipedia

... The exchange at Prime Minister's Questions would still have been a waste of time even if Titian's age at death mattered to British political life. Titian died in 1576 and no one knows when he was born, as is explained at length in the main text of Wikipedia's Titian page. But the main text isn't everything. Until the morning of 11 February 2009 the infobox and first line of the Titian page summarised the vital dates as c. 1485 - August 27, 1576, which appears to justify Gordon Brown's claim (90) and falsify David Cameron's (86). Then the latest exchange in the House of Commons was discussed on Andrew Neil's BBC show The Daily Politics. Neil's researcher checked Wikipedia on the spot and calculated that Titian lived to 91 -- beyond even Brown's bold claim. Laughter in the studio.

And then, at 12.29 on Wikipedia, Anonym A (origin unknown) changed the infobox and first line of Titian to "c. 1490 - August 27, 1576", adding the edit summary: "Birth year corrected to that stated in text." This was misleading: the text takes no firm position, and the truth rather seems to be that the edit favoured Cameron. Simultaneously, Anonym B (traced by WikiScanner to Conservative Central Office), evidently listening to Neil's show, glanced at Titian on Wikipedia, saw that the not-yet-altered text favoured Gordon Brown, thought about it for five fatal minutes, then clicked on "edit" and changed the death date, in the infobox only, to 1572: and meanwhile a colleague emailed The Daily Politics to say that they'd done their own research and Cameron was justified. Ah, no! Because of the five minute delay between reading the article and editing it, they had undermined their party leader's stance on Titian by making the painter die at a mere 82 ...

Andrew Lih, the World, and Wikipedia

... students find themselves using Wikipedia because their teachers treat it as a teaching aid. One of the earliest university professors to use this approach was Andrew Lih, who in 2003 was teaching IT at Hong Kong University. He gave 80 students the task of adding to Wikipedia on a topic related to Hong Kong, as reported by Kristie Lu Stout at CNN.com: "Take Abbie Wong and Olivia Yuen for example, two Hong Kong university students who took their love of the local shoreline to Wikipedia. Wong posted a report on white dolphins, and Yuen offered a primer to Hong Kong's beaches. Just minutes after the articles hit the site, they were tweaked and polished by Wikipedia's cult-like following ... Student Tony Yeung took a digital camera to Hong Kong's Victoria Peak and published a Wiki entry on the popular tourist lookout. 'After that, I found that my careless mistake of my English was corrected!' Yeung says."

Those three articles were all created on 14 July 2003. Abbie Wong found that in the following five days nearly twenty other users, including some fellow-students, contributed to the Chinese White Dolphin article. Oeyuen's page on Beaches of Hong Kong also turned into a joint project: one notes among the rest an edit by Fuzheado - her professor in person - who carefully removed a small passage directly lifted from other site. Yeung's piece on Victoria Peak was pasted in by Fuzheado himself, and during the next two days Vicki Rosenzweig was among those who improved it from the other side of the world. ...

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The World and Wikipedia

Just published, 25 September 2009, and you can order it now:

Read more about Andrew Dalby

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My 2004-2006 blog is still here:

Today's Quotation, Citation du Jour and Ephemeris Graecolatina

IFAQs (InFrequently Asked Questions on the origins of foods and words)

Literary Menus, Alphabet of Recipes, Historical Prescriber and Flaubert's Carthaginian feast

Food in the Ancient World Extra, Dangerous Tastes Extra, Dictionary of Languages Extra,
Notes in the Margin Extra, Bacchus Extra

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My older pages are still here too:

THE WHOLE WORLD DICTIONARY

NAMES OF LANGUAGES AND PEOPLES

The Bookshelves and STREET OF THE BOOKSELLERS

Work by Andrew Dalby

LINKS and WEB SEARCHING

Contact me through Siduri Books

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