Saturday, 16 January 2010

Guilty of Wikipedia

It is – according to the Mail on Sunday – a Bad Thing to correct, edit or add to articles on Wikipedia. It is not the sort of thing that ‘normal’ people do. It’s a bit weird. Raises all sorts of questions, don’t you know … (shakes head and wonders what the world’s coming to.)

How do I know this? Because that’s the tenor of an article about me that I expect to run in the MoS tomorrow, 16 January. And I know this thanks to a phone call from a MoS journalist on Friday afternoon, 14 January. When the call came, my mobile was on voicemail – it almost always is – so that was where the journalist left a message asking me to call back.

Now, calls from the Mail and the Mail on Sunday come in two flavours. If they’re after something from you on someone else, they generally include some idea of what – or who – their story is about. When you’re the victim, they just ask you to call back.

This one just asked me to call back.

I always return journalists’ calls – partly because it’s difficult to argue, as I do, that everyone should have an automatic right of reply and that journalism should be fair, honest and open if you’re nor prepared to answer a journalist’s questions.

The journalist gabbled nervously but got straight to the point. “We have a story about you that we’re running on Sunday and we wanted to give you a chance to comment.” Note the wording there; “we have a story … that we’re running …” So - oh dear, oh dear. What said journalist was saying, in effect, was “No counter evidence, no matter how compelling, can make us look again at this story; we’ve made up our minds. All we want from you is a comment”.

The journalist went on: “you changed the Wikipedia entries for …” and gave me a couple of names here … “we have evidence that you did it.” No offer to put the evidence to me nor any hint that such a thing could ever be on the agenda. The message was: “you’re banged to rights sonny, now do yourself a favour and come quietly”.

I pause. Partly because it’s obvious I’m not talking to a journalist who's in fact-gathering mode. I know that the more I say, the higher the risk of a single word or phrase being ripped out of context in order to ‘prove’ that … well, I’m a bit weird ‘cos I’ve participated in the most amazing knowledge experiment the world has ever known. Perhaps I should ask for dozens of other offences to be taken into consideration – changes to articles on Greek vase painting, psychology, oral poetry, epistemology, etc etc etc. But somehow I don’t think the journalist will be interested.

I pause too because I can’t quite work out where to start. Do I try to explain to this journalist what Wikipedia is? How it works? That Wikipedia isn’t a combination of Wicca and paedophilia? That it’s still legal in this country?

Do I try to explain that Wikipedia is a Good Thing (though I’d never advise a journalist to lift anything from it without checking the sources)? That it’s most good when people have collaborated, edited and corrected in large numbers? Or when people with specific knowledge and expertise have participated in authoring or fact checking an article?

Not a good idea, I think.

Do I try to explain, instead, that it’s a journalist’s duty to correct inaccuracies? And that inaccuracies come in many forms?

Perhaps not. Something tells me we’re not in that region of the universe.

Or do I reveal that this ‘story’ is no big secret? It’s not even new. I blethered on about it at the time – this was 2007, incidentally – and think I rather bored people. I’ve a vague recollection that it appeared at the time in some gossipy diary … but I can’t remember where. We even thought about doing an item about the etiquette of correcting Wikipedia articles – remember, these were Wikipedia’s relatively early days – but it never made it to air.

Do I try to explain that Wikipedia doesn’t let you correct inaccuracies or deflate puffed-up biographies or do anything ‘secretly’? That if you add or edit or correct an entry, you do it knowing that everything you do is fully public? That your changes are tracked? That anyone can see what you’ve added or edited? And can add to or correct any changes you’ve made?

No. Less is more. So I say instead: “yes I corrected those entries for the sake of accuracy”.

Said journalist is nonplussed. Drops the ‘phone or recording equipment – by the way, it’s common courtesy when you record phone calls to let the person at the other end know – and I hear distantly what sounds like a radio pantomime approaching a comic climax. When composure has been recovered, the question again. And again I say ‘yes I’ve corrected Wikipedia entries for the sake of accuracy.

Then this: “Don’t you think this undermines your position?” said in the tone of voice you might use when speaking to an MP with a very clean moat.

How can I explain that the opposite is true? Where do I start?

Is there any point in explaining that Wikipedia was still pretty young at the time. The entries in question were short, mostly ‘stubs’ … and full of inaccuracies. Silly things like audience figures, roles, names, descriptions, sequences of events. Some were mistaken, unchecked ‘common knowledge’. Others had been written by … well, by people who appeared to have an interest in portraying some events and some individual’s roles in a particular light.

No, this question is based on an assumption that is 100% wrong. It would have undermined my position to know about these inaccuracies and do nothing about them. I even opened a second Wikipedia account with a username that was then the same as my BBC login name so that it would be clear to anyone who cared where I’d corrected an entry and how.

Again, no point, I’m thinking, in explaining any of this. So I stick to the formula: “I edited the entries for the sake of accuracy”.

Now, I’ve no idea what the eventual story will be. Or whether it will run at all. If it does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some ‘oddities’ and embellishments in the ‘evidence’ – like I say, I was never offered the opportunity to know what it was or is - not even for accuracy's sake. But we will see.

On the substantive point though; yes, I am guilty of Wikipedia. In my youth – well, ok a few years ago, in my early fifties – I added, edited, corrected, supplemented dozens of articles about a whole range of things and on a whole range of people. As accurately and impartially as I was able. All openly, publicly – as indeed participating in Wikipedia has to be.

And of course this episode reminds me that I haven’t been involved in Wikipedia for a while. I became lazy as Wikipedia became better, fuller, richer – though still not, to repeat, a source journalists should use without further checking.

So, thanks Mail on Sunday for reminding me that I should get involved once again. And here’s how I’ll start – I’ll take time out to look at the articles this journalist and ‘source’ (funny how Wikipedia insists on naming sources but … well, never mind ) are frothing about and if there’s anything there that’s inaccurate and needs correction, I’ll get stuck in.

There. You heard it here first.

1 comment:

Andy Tedd said...

I think they thought that you thought you were doing it secretly - doctoring - and that you wouldn't be traced. Despite you using your real username.

That seems to be the tenor of the article. It's so lame you even get a fair bit of support in the comments on the Mail website :)

You'll be wasting time on twitter next...