A few years back I had a room mate who just despised Dave Winer.
Now, I've never been Mr Winer's biggest fan but I'm content to let him go his own way. I certainly don't wish for bad things to happen to him. But my ex-roommate not only wished ill on him but regularly fantasized about it.
This obsession eventually led him to Mr. Winer's Wikipedia page which, in his opinion, was way too positive in its tone. A situation he set out to correct by adding some of the negative incidents he felt were missing. To his credit I really think he was trying to make objective edits and assuming the facts he quoted were true I don't think they were out of line.
But someone else did.
That someone was Betsy Devine who has a reputation for doing anything to protect Mr. Winer's reputation. She reversed the edits and actually went further by adding glowing praise to the article in place of them.
Then came a third character in this little drama.
I don't remember his name but this guy seemed to have a problem with Ms. Devine and was intent on reverting her edits seemingly just to annoy her.
This all led to a knock down, drag out fight on the talk page and an article in constant flux (I honestly don't even remember who won in the end). It was the epitome of ridiculousness.
But I did get two things out of the whole incident...
- It provided me with a good deal of amusement.
- It taught me the important lesson that Wikipedia simply doesn't work.
Lets look at point #2 for a second.
These three people, who were vehemently opposed to each other, had one thing in common. None of them were impartial. One loved the guy, one hated the guy, and one hated the girl who loved the guy but not a one of them was an objective editor.
That, more than anything, is Wikipedia's fatal flaw. In order to spend time editing something without compensation you have to be passionate about the subject and passionate people aren't objective. So a system that requires people like that to be objective is flawed by definition.
In addition to that, the suggested means for resolving conflicts on Wikipedia doesn't yield the desired result. Wikipedia rules suggest parties in conflict reach some kind of compromise but while compromise is good in many situations finding the truth isn't one of them.
To illustrate this let's put the Dave Winer example aside and look at someone who is clearly a bad guy, Adolf Hitler. Assume for a moment that some Nazi stumbles on the Wikipedia page for Adolf Hitler and edits it to say he was a hero. Is there any compromise that could be made with the Nazi that would produce the truth? You could put something like "Hitler held a political belief that has fallen out of popularity in recent years" but to my eyes that's an almost criminal statement in its omission of facts.
That's the problem. When you are arguing with someone over what's true the odds are that one of you is right and one of you is wrong. A compromise might put you 50% closer to the truth but it also keeps you 50% closer to a lie.
Compromise doesn't work in cases where you're trying to find the truth.
Until those two issues are solved I really don't see Wikipedia being an accurate representation of the facts. More to the point it outlines a big problem for Wikipedia. It suggests articles get less accurate as more people with opposing life philosophies start taking on the role of editor.
Wikipedia is big right now but still limited to a certain type of people.
As the site's profile rises and the general public gets more and more involved it will be interesting to see how negative an influence that has on the accuracy of the articles.