In the “Jackie Jormp-Jomp” episode of the TV series “30 Rock”, the writers play a Wikipedia trick on the character Jenna Maroney. Jenna, who is rehearsing to portray Janis Joplin in an upcoming movie, is told to read up on Janis in Wikipedia to get into character, and the writers immediately set about to make not-so-subtle changes on the Joplin Wikipedia entry. The misled actress then, believing in the concocted Joplin quirks, attempts to eat a live cat.
The idea behind Wikipedia is that the wisdom of an anonymous crowd of volunteers with too much time on their hands, supersedes the wisdom of the accredited, bylined, accountable, fact-checked and edited expert. It is of course, a preposterous notion that has inexplicably gained popularity—and has resulted in numerous incorrect entries, mistakes, and outright lies.
The Bicholim Conflict” was revealed to be one such Wikipedia hoax. Wikipedia’s 4,500 word entry on this battle that never existed earned “Good Article” status on the site, and endured for five years, until the hoax was finally discovered last week and the entry removed. The entry covered in excruciating detail a yearlong battle in 1640 between the Indian Maratha empire and Portugal, which never happened.
Wikipedia purports to offer protection against such things by requiring citations. The main source of the Bicholim article was to a book published at Oxford University Press; unfortunately, the book (like the battle itself) was a figment of some anonymous imagination. In true crowd-follower fashion, numerous scraper sites and Wikipedia copycats copied the article (allowed under the Creative Commons license) and re-posted it, thereby perpetuating the hoax.
Many of the inaccuracies and hoaxes on Wikipedia exist because somebody has an axe to grind. But what is most disturbing about the Bicholim Conflict entry is that apparently, it was done simply as a lark. Whether the Maratha battled the Portuguese in 1640 (and they didn’t) is of little consequence to anybody today; the anonymous Wikipedian simply created this lengthy entry because they could. It served no purpose, promoted no product, had no monetary incentive, and provided no glory to anybody. The process is easy to duplicate, and the integrity of Wikipedia—if there ever was any—has long ago been destroyed by blind obeisance to the “open crowd” drumbeat of positive anonymity.
The concept of openness that pervades the modern Internet is not, in itself, negative. In fact, there are many positives, such as open source software development projects. But the fact is, “open” just for the sake of openness is no virtue. In the open source software world, contributors are usually known, and many are recognized and respected members of the tech community, often employed by prominent private software corporations which support their efforts. In the Wikipedia world, identities remain cloaked. Therein lies the difference between the open source software movement, and the open content movement that drives Wikipedia.
Although open software is not “owned” in the traditional sense of the word, there is nonetheless a sense of ownership in that individual contributors are held accountable, and their reputations may be at stake if malfeasance takes place. It’s not a financial ownership, but rather, a sense that an individual contributor may have that they made a valuable contribution, they are recognized for that contribution, and they are part of a project that seeks to create something of lasting value. In the world of Wikipedia, the absolute anonymity and openness means that there is little accountability, and no sense of ownership. This will naturally lend itself to hoaxes and fraud—and the absolute anonymity degrades the integrity of what was a well-meaning experiment.
Not only are there hoaxes with outright false information, there are noteworthy Wikipedia contributors who claim to be what they are not. Because of the anonymous sentiment behind the site, anybody can claim to be anything they want to be. Such was the case in the notorious Essjay controversy some years back, in which a contributor with the moniker “Essjay” claimed to be a scholar with multiple degrees. Essjay claimed that he was using misinformation to protect himself, a dubious claim at best. In fact, whether you’re on Wikipedia or any other venue, claiming to have degrees you don’t have is nothing more than fraud.
The Internet is a wonderful thing. A greater sense of accountability would make it even greater.