We are All Wikipedians Now

Nicholson Baker has a great article in the March 20 issue of the New York Review of Books on the "Charms of Wikipedia." He highlights that Wikipedia has flourished in large part because it’s fun to be an editor, and that part of the fun is the ongoing war between editors of good will and vandals, or people who take advantage of the site’s open and egalitarian editing policies to do things like replace the text of the article on aging with "Aging is what you get when you get freakin old old old." Baker notes that this happened on December 20, 2007, and that it was undone very quickly by vigilant Wikipedians.

Last week I discussed with my MBA students the online, freely available HBS case on Wikipedia that I co-wrote with Karim Lakhani. As part of the homework for case discussion I asked all my students to become Wikipedia editors, and to report what happened to the edits they made —  did they persist unchanged, or were they further modified or rolled back?

I didn’t tell them to engage in vandalism but a couple of them did so in order, I imagine, to test the site’s vigilance. My favorite example was a student’s addition of ‘jellybeans’ to the list of foods commonly eaten by the mongoose. Within minutes, he reported, the word disappeared and he heard from a zoologist Wikipedian offering information on both the animal’s diet and the encyclopedia’s policies on citing sources.

Other students made edits that were less overtly wrong, but still inappropriate. One added to the article on Dubai an uncredited assertion that over 20% of the world’s construction cranes were in the Emirate. He also saw his edit removed, and received information about attribution and sourcing policies. 

I should stress that most of the class edited in good will. Lots reported that because the articles they were interested in were so comprehensive they really couldn’t find much to add. Some, though, found omissions that seemed glaring. The article on Wade Boggs contained little or no mention of his affair with Margo Adams, its messy aftermath, and related press coverage. One of my students added this information in a nicely constructed paragraph. 

Overall, our experience confirmed Baker’s conclusion that:

"The "unhelpful" or "inappropriate"—sometimes stoned, racist, violent, metalheaded—changes are quickly fixed by human stompers and algorithmicized helper bots. It’s a game. Wikipedians see vandalism as a problem, and it certainly can be, but a Diogenes-minded observer would submit that Wikipedia would never have been the prodigious success it has been without its demons."

Still, as everyone acknowledges it is not a perfect or error-free resource, and students each year find some strange content. Last spring a student pointed out that the current (at that time) page for United Technologies CEO George David was almost entirely a goof. I found it astonishing that his PR staff had allowed this to persist. This year a sharp-eyed student noticed that the entry for sex researcher Robert Kolodny at present contains some strange text in the third paragraph. So the demons persist.

As do the deletionists. The only student last week to understand the true intention behind the assignment created an entry on me. It was speedily removed.