Thursday, May 19, 2005

Wikipedia, Again

About two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Boutin's critique of Wikipedia at Slate, in which he criticizes Wikipedia for not working at the same level as Encarta, or other web based encylopedias.* As Bryan pointed out in comments, Microsoft owns Encarta. I suggested that they also own Slate. Well, this morning, I received an e-mail from the author:

Hi Keith,

I enjoy a good open-source rant as much as the next guy, but Slate is
owned by The Washington Post Company.

Yours,
Paul

I responded thusly:

Paul,

Thanks for the fact check. Though, you can understand my confusion, seeing as how MSN is all over the site, including in the URL. And while the Washington Post Co. owns Slate (and apparently offers some of their stellar advice when it comes to editorial decisions), Bill Gates is obviously paying the bills in the form of heavy advertising. Perhaps if Slate (and the Washington Post) didn't let commercial interest supersede their facts, I and others would be more inclined to trust their respective content.

Sincerely,
Keith

I'm always happy to correct a few facts, especially my own.

But as I mentioned in the E-mail, the layout of Slate's site gives one the impression that MSN at the very least underwrites the efforts of its staff. While it is now obvious to me that this is not the case, there is still what I would characterize as a conflict of interest. Normally, we don't think twice about an editorial piece that just happens to dovetail nicely with the desires of a major advertiser of a news website. That's just business as usual and not really new. But in this instance, the criticism of Wikipedia's editorial system was unfounded. Also, Mr. Boutin had several of his facts wrong, facts that were easily verified simply be checking Wikipedia's own stats. Such mischaracterization, if unchecked, can go a long way towards damaging the reputation of a very useful resource, be it Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica. I don't think Mr. Boutin did so maliciously. I may be cynical, but I'm not that cynical. When someone in the media wishes to trash something of unverified merit, they don't go about it half assed. If Slate or WaPo wanted to rip Wikipedia a new one, they would have done so in purple prose and at length, using the methods perfected by such great newsmen like William Randolph Hurst.

Now, I'm not saying Slate is by any means, the tool of a nefarious billionaire with shady business practices. Nor am I suggesting that they bite the hand that feeds them. All I ask, is that their writers check their facts and their editors double check them.

And while I'm at it, I'd also like a pony.

_________
* Which it isn't. Wikipedia is far more useful than Encarta and other web-based encyclopedias, for reasons I mentioned previously, and in a case study I recently completed for my master's work. If anyone would like to read this case study, which is riveting stuff, send me an e-mail. I'll gladly attach a PDF copy.

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