29 January 2006

Wikipedia: not Right, but Might

If you ever wondered why, in the age of the global Internet, local newspapers still existed, read this. It begins as precisely the kind of small-scale story that someone like, well, me, for example, would have thought unworthy of much attention. It's about some small, local politician somewhere in Massachusetts (don't ask me, I'm British), doing something small and local, right?


The basic story is simple. A US politician (or probably someone on his staff) came across this wacky Wikipedia stuff, and noticed that anyone could edit it freely. So, being a politician (or the hired hand thereof), this person decided to do the obvious thing: edit out all the embarrassing bits in the biography of this politician.

Alas for this individual, in the wacky world of Wikipedia, nefariousness is not so easy. Certainly, you can edit away to your little heart's content - but do remember that you will leave behind a nice audit trail for everyone to see exactly who did what.

Following that trail, this particular enlightened journalist (step forward Evan Lehmann) discovered that more than 1,000 changes had been made by "congressional staffers at the U.S. House of Representatives in the past six month". So this little local story turns out to be something very big. In fact it turns out to be two very big things.

The first is that traditional politicians do not flourish in an open context: when everything they do can be traced and and tracked they are in trouble. The second is that Wikipedia is now so important even the politicians want to subvert it (or at least try). This makes recent discussions about whether Wikipedia's entries are right somewhat moot: forget right, Wikipedia is officially might.

Update: Wikipedia has now started taking corrective action.

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