June 30, 2007

Wikipedia and Responsibility

Greetings. In the wake of my recent posting regarding Wikipedia and the Benoit murder/suicide case, I've received a number of responses that boil down to: "Why are you blaming Wikipedia for anything relating to this situation? Wikipedia isn't supposed to be authoritative."

I definitely agree that in a perfect world everyone would understand that Wikipedia is not authoritative -- and cannot be under its current structure.

But in the real world, Google searches on a vast array of topics will return Wikipedia articles as the top or near top results (and/or in other contexts), and a vast number of sites use Wikipedia entries as convenient explanatory text or links -- despite most WP entries' lack of attribution, lack of documented fact checking, and being subject to mutation and alteration at any time. But Wikipedia entries are free, they're easy to link to, and hell, if any particular Wikipedia page is wrong at any particular moment, people can always say "it's not my problem."

Unfortunately, it is not necessarily obvious to many Web users following such links -- or reading related excerpted texts -- that Wikipedia articles "aren't supposed to be authoritative." Many people who find their way to Wikipedia items or texts don't know what Wikipedia really is about, and many persons understandably assume it's like any other "real" encyclopedia (that is, authors attributed somewhere, facts get a modicum of checking at least most of the time, entries aren't subject to random editing on a whim, etc.)

The Wikipedia folks created the system under which they operate. They need to take some responsibility when that structure causes damage. This isn't the first example of Wikipedia abuse screwing around with people's lives.

I am frankly very tired of hearing some people use the Internet as an excuse for anonymous attacks and abuses, with it seems relatively few persons having enough guts to take responsibility for the impacts that then result.

We want to let people post anonymously, at least the pseudo-anonymity (subject to tracing in many cases) offered by the Internet? Fine. Anonymous speech definitely has its role. But the buck has to stop somewhere, and these systems should not be an excuse for a hit and run mentality.

In most such cases a significant amount of the responsibility when damage occurs must rest on the publisher of the unattributed information, if they have voluntarily chosen to operate in that manner. I'm not talking about common carriers and ISPs. I'm referring to sites that set themselves up in a way that serves to isolate posters/editors of material in public forums from attribution.

Again, if you want to operate this way, that's a perfectly valid choice. But realize that you're transferring part of the responsibility onto yourself. I do not believe that as a society we can accept the premise that anonymous systems erase all aspects of responsibility from all involved parties.

In the current Benoit situation, I likely wouldn't throw the book at that hoax poster. It's easy to be suckered in by the "devil-may-care" attitude that Wikipedia tends to foster. The hoaxer didn't realize that, in this case, they were falling into a serious and painful trap.


Posted by Lauren at June 30, 2007 11:55 AM | Permalink
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