(photo credit: Courtesy)
Way back when, before the Internet, there used to be a hierarchy of information sources. When you had to write a high-school term paper, for example, you would work your way through the various information sources - teacher, librarian, library book, Cliff's Notes - until you reached the highest authority of all, the encyclopedia.
Nowadays, though, even encyclopedias aren't what they used to be. Not if the prime example of a modern example is the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/). It just doesn't seem much like a way to run an encyclopedia.
Wikipedia, the huge on-line encyclopedia, didn't invent "wikis"; the system, which means a collaborative, incremental addition of information that goes into building a compendium of data, was already long established as a resource in many large corporations. What Wikipedia did was to expand the function of wikis to any and every aspect of human knowledge. No longer would just specific projects and processes, such as the building of a software platform, be the subject of a wiki. Any topic could be addressed in what was intended to be a free (and free-wheeling) encyclopedia that would cover the breadth of the human experience (http://tinyurl.com/2whpny), according to Larry Sanger, co-founder of the project.
You wouldn't expect an encyclopedia - which is supposed to be a record of factual information on a broad range of topics - to generate too much controversy. After all, facts are facts, and either they're right or they're wrong. At Wikipedia, anybody can register to edit an article on any topic, and the idea is to keep the flow of knowledge as unfettered as possible. If a fact is in error, Sanger says, the theory is that the community will be self-policing and that errors will eventually get fixed by somebody who knows the score.
Except that facts aren't always facts; they're often in dispute, especially when it comes to political, historical or philosophical issues. Issues relating to Israel and Judaism are often subverted by those who dislike both, and many pages in the Wikipedia dealing with Jewish or Israeli issues are chock-full of disclaimers - like "this article or section does not adequately cite its references or sources," or "this article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards."
On the discussion page of an article called "the new anti-Semitism," there are five different disclaimers on top (http://tinyurl.com/2dp6z4), while the actual topic page (http://tinyurl.com/2d3acs) has been "protected from editing until disputes have been resolved" because of the many attempts by those who disagree with its contents (Arabs and radical leftists, mostly) to change it. It's like that on a lot of pages.
And not just the Israel/Jewish oriented pages. Any major modern topic that is in dispute - Northern Ireland, Armenia (discussing whether a massacre by the Turks actually occurred), the legal status of Taiwan and Cyprus, the politics of editing on Wikipedia - there are dozens of such controversies (http://tinyurl.com/23gu5c). Even the context of non-disputed topics is a cause of controversy: "The article on Star Trek, for instance, is quite comprehensive and the one on Vulcans is about three times as long as [Australian 'poet'] Ern Malley's. Ern at least wrote some real poems, but Vulcans never existed at all, although it is hard to detect from reading the article," says an interesting Wikipedia criticism at http://tinyurl.com/35eq6e.
Not to mention the various editorial sloppiness and/or vindictiveness Wikipedia is criticized for: Seigenthaler (http://tinyurl.com/cyogx), Peter Singer's article on ethics (http://www.answers.com/topic/peter-singer), "Essjay" (http://tinyurl.com/33qwt7), Wikipedia deleting critics (http://tinyurl.com/3847ug, http://www.wikipedia-watch.org/, http://wikipediareview.com, et. al.), and others.
Of course, Wikipedia has (or had) a page of answers to most of these, and other criticisms, at http://tinyurl.com/2fmu2t. On the other hand, a recent study has shown that in terms of factual error, Wikipedia is probably no worse than Encyclopedia Brittanica (http://tinyurl.com/dx46m), according to a recent study by Nature magazine on the accuracy of several dozen scientific articles that has caused much media discussion. With all the bad press, it's no wonder that some colleges have banned Wikipedia as a source for citations in term papers and assignments (http://tinyurl.com/yvjl7y).
It's not just the Wikipedia outsiders who have complaints; the ultimate insider, Larry Sanger, did as well, and he decided to start a brand new project that will address the weaknesses of Wikipedia - the Citizendium (http://en.citizendium.org), which defines itself as a "citizens' compendium of everything aimed at creating an enormous, free and reliable encyclopedia" (emphasize the reliable). This time, all editors must identify themselves by their real names, using their real resumes/credentials. Although credentials will play a major role in whether one qualifies to be an editor, all are invited, according to the Citizendium FAQ; the editors are there more or less to keep out the excesses of anonymous Wikipedia-style editing.
Will it work? From the FAQ, it seems as if a great deal of faith is being placed in the goodwlll of participants and editors; after all, it's certainly possible that a qualified, credentialed editor could impose his or her specific viewpoints on the topic he or she is editing. So, in a couple of years, Citizendium could end up with just as many critics as its older rival sibling has. But for now, we in Israel can relax a bit; the article on our country (http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Israel) is as plain and factual as it gets (name, capital and size). Hopefully, it'll take a long time for the inevitable politics to creep in.