Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/12/wikipedia_no_responsibility/

There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility'

Seigenthaler libeller unmasked - thought it was a joke site

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Policy, 12th December 2005 14:25 GMT

No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood - Despair.com

On Monday, in one of his now-weekly appearances on cable news defending the latest Wikipedia scandal, the project's figurehead Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales expressed his desire to find the anonymous internet user who had libeled John Seigenthaler.

Seigenthaler, a former Robert Kennedy aide and newspaper editor wrote about his anguish a fortnight ago, describing how an edit to his Wikipedia biography implicated in him in the Kennedy assassination, and claimed he'd lived in Russia for twelve years. Both claims were false, and lay uncorrected for months.

For CNN viewers, and for NPR listeners again the following day, Wales repeated his wish to unmask the perp, but could only offer some hand-wringing excuse about the difficulty of finding anonymous users, and the complexity of serving internet service providers with subpoenas. However, we now learn that the libeler wasn't very hard to find, and has now stepped forward to confess to making the edit with an apology.

Brian Chase, a 38 year old employee of Rush Delivery in Seigenthaler's home town of Nashville, Tennessee, admitted to making the edit and has apologized to Seigenthaler. The reason he gave to the New York Times was most revealing.

Chase thought Wikipedia was a joke site and he made the edit to amuse a colleague. From which we conclude that the spoof site Uncyclopedia, which consists entirely of fictional entries, is doing far better than expected, and that Wikipedia has a long way to go to rid itself of the image that it's a massive, multiplayer shoot-em-up game, or MMORPG.

Chase has lost his job, and Seigenthaler joined the pleas to reinstate him.

But the unusual aspect of this - and this is an irony on a par with Sony using 'DVD' Jon Johansen's anti-DRM code in its DRM CD software - is what compelled Chase to step forward. The libeller was outed not by Wikipedia guardians, by a prominent critic of the site who has been earned himself a lifetime Wikipedia ban - researcher Daniel Brandt.

Chase left a fingerprint behind, in the form of an IP address, and Brandt discovered that the machine was active, traced it to Nashville, and discovered it was hosting a web server. The web server revealed the name of a company: 'Rush Delivery'. Brandt fired off a fax to Rush Delivery in Nashville and confirmed the connection.

Perhaps he'll be unbanned now, although we doubt it. But Brandt, who recounts his story in detail (grep for "whodunnit") says his discovery was extremely fortunate, and he's correct in many ways. Wikipedia has made it more difficult for such detective work to be performed in the future, as the site now requires a 30 second log-in procedure to create an unvalidated user id, behind which libellers can shield their identity.

That Wales couldn't fufil his expressed desire to unmask the perpetrator sounds less a case of "too hard to do" than one of "can't be bothered, mate".

So we come to the question of responsibility. We've promised to deal with the ethics of Wikipedia before, and it's no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room, so we must.

Who's responsible for Wikipedia?

Two great cries have rung around the internet since the Seigenthaler scandal broke.

One is that Seigenthaler should have corrected the entry himself, and the other is that no source of authority can be trusted "definitively". That's a deliciously weaselly phrase we'll examine in a moment.

But both excuses seek, in the classic tradition of bad engineers blaming users for their own shoddy handiwork, to pass the responsibility onto Wikipedia's users.

The blame goes here, the blame goes there - the blame goes anywhere, except Wikipedia itself. If there's a problem - well, the user must be stupid!

Before we deal with each of these, and in all fairness, we must step over a small but important semantic whoopsy. If what we today know as "Wikipedia" had started life as something called, let's say - "Jimbo's Big Bag O'Trivia" - we doubt if it would be the problem it has become. Wikipedia is indeed, as its supporters claim, a phenomenal source of pop culture trivia. Maybe a "Big Bag O'Trivia" is all Jimbo ever wanted. Maybe not.

For sure a libel is a libel, but the outrage would have been far more muted if the Wikipedia project didn't make such grand claims for itself. The problem with this vanity exercise is one that it's largely created for itself. The public has a firm idea of what an "encyclopedia" is, and it's a place where information can generally be trusted, or at least slightly more trusted than what a labyrinthine, mysterious bureaucracy can agree upon, and surely more trustworthy than a piece of spontaneous graffiti - and Wikipedia is a king-sized cocktail of the two.

Secondly, Wikipedia's proliferation owes much to the fact that we're currently in a temporary, but very familiar blip in history - one we've been in many times before. Wikipedia has sprung up to fill a temporary void. Copyright law exists in a permanent state of tension, and there's a latency between a new technology being invented and compensation mechanisms being agreed upon that spread that valuable, copyrighted material far and wide.

So I'm very privileged right now, as a member of the San Francisco public library, to be able to tap into expensive databases I couldn't otherwise afford. In ten years time, these "member's societies" will be the norm, and most of us won't even realize we're members. The good stuff will just come out of a computer network.

For now, however, it's the chasm between Wikipedia's rude claim to be an "encyclopedia", and the banal reality of trashy, badly written trivia that causes so many people to be upset about it.

It's an unwarranted assumption of authority.

Now back to Seigenthaler, and let's address each of these pathetic defenses in turn.

The first, and the most immediately absurd of these two defenses, is that since nothing at all can be trusted, er, "definitively", then Wikipedia can't be trusted either. This is curious, to say the least, as it points everyone's expectations firmly downwards.

If you recall the utopian rhetoric that accompanied the advent of the public "internet" ten years ago, we were promised that unlimited access to the world's greatest "knowledge" was just around the corner. This hasn't happened, for reasons cited above, but now the public is now being exhorted to assume the posture of a citizen in an air raid, where every moving object might be a dangerous missile.

Everything you read is suspect! You'd better duck!

Only a paranoiac, or a mad person, can sustain this level of defensiveness for any length of time however, and to hear a putative "encyclopedia" making such a statement is odd, to say the least.

This defense firmly puts the blame on the reader, for being so stupid as to take the words at face value. Silly you, for believing us, they say.

The second defense is rather more intriguing, and repellant.

Wikipedia's defenders point to the open model, where anyone can make changes, as another example of shrugging off responsibility.

This, again, is an excuse we have to savor as much as a lepidopterist might savor catching an undiscovered breed of butterfly - it's an excuse that can only be heard during rare blips in human history.

This one owes its credibility to the fact that the word "publication" has become rather blurry. Wikipedia is a project whose failure is genetically programmed into its mechanisms, and "publication" is one of those things that will trigger the final, fatal sequence of destruction.

We can rest assured that Wikipedia will never be printed - or at least not in countries where defamation laws exist. Perhaps some brave soul will attempt a Wikipedia tome in Borneo. Or Mars. But as soon as it hits print, the blurriness behind publication disappears, and Wikipedia The Book is seen for what it is, an evasiveness based on accident. And the lawsuits will begin in earnest.

So Wikipedia's second defense rests heavily on the assumption that everyone in the whole world is participating, watching, and writing at every moment of the day, and so that a failure to pay attention represents negligence on the part of the complainer. Seigenthaler, the argument goes, was clearly being an idiot when he failed to notice that day's piece of web grafitti. Instead of taking his dog for a walk, or composing an email to his grandchildren, he should have been paying ceaseless attention to ... his Wikipedia biography.

To which the only honest answer is, "we don't owe you anything".

Really, we don't. If they can't get it right, why on earth should we have to clean up the mess. I can't speak for you, but I have better things to do.

"It's the Hive Mind wot dunnit. Not me"

If "publication" by an "encyclopedia" means anything, it means that you have to get those facts right.

More or less. Kinda.

And "publication", therefore, entails some kind of responsibility. The "Hive Mind", or "collective intelligence" that we're told will "self-correct" such goofs is simply absent when it's needed. The only people operating the levers of the man behind the Hive Mind curtain, it seems, are the Wikipedians.

Involvement in Wikipedia has taken its toll on a significant number of decent, fair minded people who with the most honorable intentions, have tried to alert the project to its social responsibilities and failed. Such voices could be heard on the Wikipedia mailing list, speaking up for quality. Wikipedia is losing good editors at an alarming rate, but who can blame them for leaving?

Quality isn't an issue, and now Responsibility isn't an issue either.

We'll leave you with one delicious illustration of Wikipedia's sense of responsibility. We turn - where else? - to Wikipedia's philosophy section.

When a few weeks ago, we looked at how Wiki folk defined "quality", we found a very telling definition, one that was at odds with all others. "Quality" was loosely defined as "general good value".

And Wikipedia hasn't disappointed us now.

Calls for responsibility, we learn, in that unique strangulated prose style that is truly Wikipedia's legacy to the world -

"... often form a pejorative means of attacking political opponents. This habit of demanding behaviour aligned to one's own desires also occurs in other arenas: one expects "responsibility" from children, parents, spouses, colleagues and employees, meaning they should change their attitudes to suit the speaker."

From which the only thing missing is:

".... booooo big bad teecher - I'm not going to skool today. fuck you!!"

Which is terrific stuff.

Now a picture of the body behind the "Hive Mind" of "collective intelligence" begins to take shape.

He's 14, he's got acne, he's got a lot of problems with authority ... and he's got an encyclopedia on dar interweb.

Watch out! ®