Wikipedia to rein in the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd

It describes itself as the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and is the default example of the 'wisdom of the crowds'.

But Wikipedia may be about to concede that letting anyone have a go is not the best way to produce quality information. According the BBC News website, the Foundation behind the online encyclopedia is considering a new policy that would see all contributions vetted by volunteer editors before approval.

At the moment, all editing is retrospective. This has lead to numerous occassions whereby false information has gone unchecked. The BBC implies that two incidents, wherein users falsely alleged that US Senators Robert Byrd and Edward Kenned had died, had inspired the proposed change.

The reform is not a complete abandonment of the principles that makes Wikipedia what it is. Anyone is still eligible to make a contribution. But it will make the role of the site's editors, often understated in discussions on the topic, more explicit.

The debate as to whether it represents a move towards censorship, or a acknowledgement of the importance of expertise – already raging among the Wikipedia editor community – has a broader significance.

In South Korea, the trends associated with Web 2.0 – mass participating, community editing – have developed to a stage far beyond what we have here in the UK. And occassionally, a story from that country provides a glimpe of a nightmare scenario of their cultural impact if extrapolated ad absurdum.

Last year, the country's government delayed lifting a ban on the import of American beef after activists staged mass protests. Opponents argued that Amercian beef carried BSE, and that Koreans were particularly vulnerable to developing CJD; both of which were false claims that had bounced around the country's message boards and whipped Korea's young people into a frenzy of xenophobic rage.

Meanwhile, Korean society has been shocked by a spate of celebrity suicides prompted, according to many reports, by online rumours that snowball into witch hunts.

Of course, South Korea has doubtless benefited from the free flow of information afforded by its impressive digital culture, albeit in a less headline-grabbing fashion.

Nevertheless, these stories serve as a warning that technologies which obstensibly grant freedom of expression to the masses can give rise to groupthink and herd-behaviour – arguably the most oppressive forces in human psychology. And they are not without parallel here in the UK.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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