Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wikipedia is Slowing Down and Pasqualina Is a Fine Irish Name

TIME Magazine has an article about Wikipedia: Is Wikipedia a Victim of Its Own Success? The article states in early 2007, Wikipedia no longer grew exponentially. Considered a blip at the time, it's clear now in 2009 that something new is happening.

Whenever I have to explain Wikipedia, I say something along the lines of, 'It's an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.' It's not just anybody editing it any more; now it seems like it's pretty much a bunch of young white guys with undergrads in wealthy countries. That isn't exactly startling for any online site. Wikipedia meant to have a far larger scope of contributors. The article states that women, for example, are only 13% of the contributors. I have to wonder if the article kept in mind the ability to mask gender on the internet. I know I've posed as male numerous times in order to be treated differently, though more so fourteen years ago than today, and more than a few of my handles have been gender-neutral.

"In Wikipedia's early days, every new addition to the site had a roughly equal chance of surviving editors' scrutiny. Over time, though, a class system emerged; now revisions made by infrequent contributors are much likelier to be undone by elite Wikipedians."

Very true. Sometimes it's hard to make edits. I have a first-hand experience with this.

I am remotely related to a Canadian hockey player; his mother is my father's cousin. My grandfather and his brother married two sisters from the same family. I've met everyone in question; my branch is where the non-Italian folk start creeping in. (That would be my mother.) One day I decided to look my relative up and was surprised.

"His father is an Italian immigrant who moved to Montreal in 1979 and works in the construction and delivery of furniture, while his mother is an Irish-Canadian who works in marketing with Air Canada." I don't know if she works for Air Canada. I could probably find out, but I do know she doesn't have a drop of Irish blood in her. Not a drop. Her name is Pasqualina. She's from as close to the same stock as my father without actually being his sister. I've met her, I've hugged her, I've spoken with her, and I'm pretty sure if you mentioned that she was Irish-Canadian on Wikipedia, she'd give you a very strange look.

'How strange,' I thought to myself. 'I guess I'd better correct this.' So I made an edit. I didn't even make the edit in the article, just the discussion of the article. Wikipedia only trusts 'reliable sources'. Now, without going through an epic rigamarole to prove who I was (possibly requiring a photo with said hockey player's wedding invite to our family plus wedding favour crystal clock, which would even then not be conclusive but would be incredibly tacky), I had no way of proving who I was. Therefore, the New York times - the publisher of the article this tidbit of information on the wiki page was gleaned from - was more reliable than me, even though they'd made a mistake. And how do you fix that, really? Years later, do you contact the New York Times and mention, oh, hey, that story you wrote on that hockey player, his mother's not Irish? So there it is, this glaring (to me, at least, and apparently to a couple of other posters on the discussion page) mistake set there until someone writes an article with the correct information - and that source better be more 'reliable' than the New York Times. Yeah, that's gonna need at least two articles from different sources to get changed, and even then I foresee a debate.

I am more reliable than the New York Times! On that subject, at least. It's just no one on Wikipedia will believe me. Is that wrong? No. On the internet, I can say I'm related to Barack Obama and no one is required to believe me. Nor should they, since he is not related to any Canadian hockey players like I am.

Do I still like Wikipedia? Yes. Definitely. I love the whole concept. I know when there is a breaking news story, like a shooting at a university, I can look it up on Wikipedia and get very regular, often first-hand updates far ahead of the standard news media. And there's a personal note, too, that someone very much like me is out there experiencing this and typing it out to inform others. I find it remarkable how regular people are now, with the help of digital and cell-phone cameras and videos, becoming reporters, first on the scene because they are at the scene. That's amazing.

Do people get things wrong? Of course. Any time you use Wikipedia as a source, you'd better double-check it with something else to make sure you're not repeating a mistake. You apparently run the same risk using the New York Times, too, but at least they're easier to quote in a bibliography.

As for whether or not this two-year-plus lull is a sign that Wikipedia is dying, I highly doubt it. The reason it's more accepted as a source now is because that big boom in the beginning already happened and has tapered off. As long as new things keep happening, getting discovered, getting re-discovered, Wikipedia will grow. Or maybe it won't, and it'll be like that old set of encyclopedias down in my basement, out of date but still useful for older subjects. Down in my basement, for example, Pluto is still a planet.


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