This article was originally published on Comment is Free
Ted Kennedy died last week. At least, I think it was last week that I had an alert from Wikipedia: “Kennedy suffered a seizure at a luncheon following the Barack Obama Presidential inauguration on January 20, 2009. He was removed in a wheelchair, and died shortly after.”
That doesn’t mean anything (as Camus might have said). Kennedy is, of course, still alive. But Wikipedia contributors, either through zeal, malice or mischief, killed him and fellow senator Robert Byrd last week.
For Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, this proved the last straw. He decided to put forward the idea of “flagged revisions”, whereby certain edits of Wikipedia entries will only be available to the public once they have been cleared by “trusted editors”. Flagged revisions are not without precedent. The German Wikipedia has been using the system since May 2008. Nonetheless, the concept seems like a retreat from the utopian wiki vision of a self-governing, self-balancing online information community. The imposition of a hierarchy seems utterly at odds with the dream.
But is the dream realistic? Who knows? The problem is that the dream itself isn’t entirely clear: surely, in a very short space of time, the Kennedy and Byrd entries would be corrected (as indeed they were), without the need for the reaction from Wales. The essential problem with a venture like Wikipedia is that people will get stuff wrong: that’s where the community correction element comes in. But as events move on, more edits can be made, more information, right and wrong, put out. While a newspaper article’s life effectively ends in the recycling bin, there is no endpoint to the internet.
This existential problem does not just apply to Wikipedia. Under current UK law, an internet article is republished every time someone refreshes the page – unlike a print article, which is published on the day it’s published. This has grave or joyous implications, depending on whether one is an online writer or a defamation lawyer: while plaintiffs can only sue for defamation in print within one year of publication, the indefinite nature of internet publication means that a publication, journalist or blogger can be sued years after a piece first appears. One wonders in cases such as this, why, if the allegations in articles were so injurious would it take the subject so long to notice? (I’m deliberately not naming specific cases, but yes, they do exist.)
The question is whether the paradigms of journalism, research and law have, in fact, caught up with the medium that is their future. Indeed, have we caught up ourselves? Considering the breakneck pace of web publishing, can journalists, bloggers and other internet users be expected to get everything right first time, by their editors, their readers and the courts? Can readers and researchers really expect things they read on the internet to be true? Do we need to rethink entirely how we read, and how we write?