Philip Hensher: Wikipedia is beautiful, but never perfect

Monday 09 February 2009 01:00

Wikipedia is surely one of the most brilliant ideas of the century so far. Starting with a blank sheet on 15 January, 2001, Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales invited internet users to write an online encyclopedia of unlimited scope, without supervisory editing. The users would write, debate, edit, and supplement the individual entries.

A simple and beautiful idea. But who would be bothered to do such a thing? To write even a mildly inaccurate and short entry in a work of reference involves considerable work for, in this case, no recognition and no money. In any case, how could such a thing be reliable? Who would turn to Wikipedia to find anything, without a sense of whether the entry on Greek tragedy had been written by a Regius professor (not very likely) or a 12-year old in Nebraska as part of a school project (more probable)?

By the end of 2001, there were 20,000 articles. Six years later, there were more than two million, and the answer to these problems became clear. The encyclopedia would, over time, be refined by the attentions of the multitudes. If, as Gresham's law says, bad money drives out good, so the opposite seems true of knowledge. The crackpot, tendentious, ill-written, and self-promoting seem – by some means I don't pretend to understand – to drop away over time, edited out by an army of interested and often passionate volunteers. Whereas, in other bottom-up enterprises like online reviewing, the full range of the knowledgeable and ignorant are preserved in a fake democracy, Wikipedia succeeds in casting off most of the dross.

There are of course famous cases of vandalism. In May 2005, an anonymous user created a defamatory article about the American politician John Seigenthaler, claiming he was involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy. Someone edited the article on Margaret Thatcher to state she was a "fictional character". Vandals have repeatedly added to the entry on Alastair Darling to state he is "nothing but a fat looser" [sic] and has "silly eyebrows". Entertainingly, in the brief interval between the announcement of a celebrity's death and the filing of newspaper obituaries, some contributors have often added bogus information, which then appears in print. But these tend to be brief phenomena, quickly corrected by the community.

It is sad Wikipedia's golden age seems to be coming to an end. Articles about controversial subjects have been protected for some time, and some foreign-language versions run new material past a board of editors, slowing down the process and, in my view, missing the point of the wonderful edifice. So it's sad that Mr Wales, shocked by the announcement on Wikipedia that Ted Kennedy had died when he hadn't, is proposing that changes to articles on living people, and highly controversial subjects, should first be viewed by a committee. I see his point, but we should see Wikipedia for what it is: a lively conversation, into which silliness and recklessness will occasionally enter, to be later excluded by more sober contributors.

Wikipedia has, famously, been shown to be a third more reliable than Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite that, it would be a reckless researcher who used it, unsupported, as a source. Let's understand what it is: a series of overviews, of wildly differing standards, of two million separate articles. If you spend more than an hour reading Wikipedia, you are almost certain to develop some degree of scepticism about the accuracy, just because you know how it is put together. I can't see that, in any sense, as a bad thing.

Jade's story is now more about chemo-chic than her real suffering

Of course, we feel sorry for Jade Goody. Having contrived to turn her life into a true-life story, and live as much as possible under the inspection of cameras, she has now found that the prospect of her death from a rapidly-spreading cancer will interest editors, and, in turn, readers.

The prospects for her survival are not good, and, it has been remarked, why should she not seek to support her children beyond her death by selling her story while she is alive? After all, any number of more middle-class writers have kept a diary, and published it for the same purpose.

The mind shrinks, however, in delicacy. We know and value the accounts of final illness in John Diamond, or Paul Monette, or Miles Kington, because they were very good writers. The exposure of the most private of experiences is balanced in our minds against the possibility of its expert expression. I don't think we can learn anything from an experience which has to be mediated through the professional skills of a magazine reporter or a ghost writer. I wish Miss Goody well, but the public display of her illness is not directed at our common humanity or empathy, but at a public which will pay more to see a photograph of her chemo-bald scalp.

How I was blooded into an Italian tradition

Ever since Soho's new Italian restaurant Bocca di Lupo opened a month or two back, friends, acquaintances and near-total strangers have been calling up saying "you've got to go". And why? There's a pudding on the menu called Sanguinaccio, a paste made up of chocolate and pig's blood.

I thought this likely to be fantasy, but there it is, and it turns out to be a perfectly genuine Italian carnival speciality. I consider myself, and evidently, most of my friends consider me, one of nature's gastronomic derring-doers. I would be surprised to learn of a part of a pig's anatomy which I hadn't deliberately eaten at some point or other, and have never quite understood the point of Doctor Johnson's remark that "it was a brave man who first ate an oyster". Where would we be without a little curiosity, culinarily speaking? Eating hot cutlets in winter, and cold cutlets in summer, no doubt.

In any case, the sanguinaccio arrived, with an intensely cocoa-bean top-note and quite a remarkable afterburn of boudin noir. My more squeamish partner made retching noises all the way home on the tube. But I was glad, once in a while, to try what he describes as the Nutella of Satan.

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