This article appears in The Times today.
A new web tool was launched this week. The WikiScanner allows users to track changes made to the phenomenally popular online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia. By comparing those changes with blocks of IP addresses, the editors of Wikipedia entries may be identified according to their location and the organisation from which they post.
The removal of unflattering references to particular corporations has been traced back to computers at the relevant companies. Someone at Labour’s headquarters altered a section about the Labour Students organisation to remove a reference to career politicians.
The development of technology that exposes such shenanigans could be taken as evidence of the self-correcting nature of cyberspace. It ought to be seen instead as a lesson in how easily information can be manipulated in a culture that prizes “user-generated content”.
Wikipedia relies on the wisdom of crowds. Knowledge is fluid. A definition contained in a reference work can never be regarded as complete and definitive. More reliable information emerges through continual revision. Consequently, anyone can edit an entry in Wikipedia. Many articles are plainly useless, but owing to the democratic nature of the medium the way is always open to incremental improvement.
Some may find this a seductive vision of the spread of knowledge. I find it alarming. It combines the free-market dogmatism of the libertarian Right with the anti-intellectualism of the populist Left. There is no necessary reason that Wikipedia’s continual revisions enhance knowledge. It is quite as conceivable that an early version of an entry in Wikipedia will be written by someone who knows the subject, and later editors will dissipate whatever value is there. Wikipedia seeks not truth but consensus, and like an interminable political meeting the end result will be dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices.
This is an inherent flaw. The problem is not that there are too few voices in the editorial process, who can skew the result, but the opposite. Participation is prized more than competence. When a prominent Wikipedian who claimed to be a tenured professor of divinity was revealed instead to be a young college dropout, the site’s founder Jimmy Wales responded that he was unconcerned. The notion that a false claim to knowledge is wrong is not part of Wikipedia’s culture.
The WikiScanner is thus an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life. Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that; it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions.