NY Times on Anonymous Sources


Anonymous Source Is Not the Same as Open Source

Published: March 12, 2006

{ Coments by Anonymous

WIKIPEDIA, the free online encyclopedia, currently serves up the following: Five billion pages a month. More than 120 languages. In excess of one million English-language articles. And a single nagging epistemological question: Can an article be judged as credible without knowing its author?

Wikipedia says yes, but I am unconvinced.

{ Dreamhost’s wiki statistics for comparison:

Languages: 1?
nagging epistemological question: Can an article be judged as credible even knowing its author?

Site statistics
There are 2034 total pages in the database. This includes “talk” pages, pages about DreamHost, minimal “stub” pages, redirects, and others that probably don’t qualify as content pages. Excluding those, there are 208 pages that are probably legitimate content pages.

There have been a total of 811212 page views, and 5121 page edits since the wiki was setup. That comes to 2.52 average edits per page, and 158.41 views per edit.

User statistics: There are 1229 registered users. 22 of these are administrators

Dispensing with experts, the Wikipedians invite anyone to pitch in, writing an article or editing someone else’s. No expertise is required, nor even a name. Sound inviting? You can start immediately. The system rests upon the belief that a collectivity of unknown but enthusiastic individuals, by dint of sheer mass rather than possession of conventional credentials, can serve in the supervisory role of editor. Anyone with an interest in a topic can root out inaccuracies and add new material.

At first glance, this sounds straightforward. But disagreements arise all the time about what is a problematic passage or an encyclopedia-worthy topic, or even whether a putative correction improves or detracts from the original version.

The egalitarian nature of a system that accords equal votes to everyone in the “community” — middle-school student and Nobel laureate alike — has difficulty resolving intellectual disagreements.

{ Suggests combining wiki-nature with karma/status ratings like /. should be considered.

Wikipedia’s reputation and internal editorial process would benefit by having a single authority vouch for the quality of a given article. In the jargon of library and information science, lay readers rely upon “secondary epistemic criteria,” clues to the credibility of information when they do not have the expertise to judge the content.

Once upon a time, Encyclopaedia Britannica recruited Einstein, Freud, Curie, Mencken and even Houdini as contributors. The names helped the encyclopedia bolster its credibility. Wikipedia, by contrast, provides almost no clues for the typical article by which reliability can be appraised. A list of edits provides only screen names or, in the case of the anonymous editors, numerical Internet Protocol addresses. Wasn’t yesterday’s practice of attaching “Albert Einstein” to an article on “Space-Time” a bit more helpful than today’s “”?

{ Or 1, 111, 2chemp, 3eyes, A, Aaaa, or Aaaaaaas…?

What does Wikipedia’s system offer in place of an expert authority willing to place his or her professional reputation on the line with a signature attached to an article?

When I asked Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, last week, he discounted the importance of individual contributors to Britannica. “When people trust an article in Britannica,” he said, “it’s not who wrote it, it’s the process.” There, a few editors review a piece and then editing ceases. By contrast, Wikipedia is built with unending scrutiny and ceaseless editing.

He predicts that in the future, it will be Britannica’s process that will seem strange: "People will say, ‘This was written by one person? Then looked at by only two or three other people? How can I trust that process?’ "

{ Is it really so much different in wikis?

The Wikipedian hive is capable of impressive feats. The English-language collection recently added its millionth article, for example. It was about the Jordanhill railway station, in Glasgow. The original version, a few paragraphs, appeared to say all that a lay reader would ever wish to know about it. But the hive descended and in a week, more than 640 edits were logged.

If every topic could be addressed like this, without recourse to specialized learning — and without the heated disputes called flame wars — the anonymous hive could be trusted to produce work of high quality. But the Jordanhill station is an exception.

Biographical entries, for example, are often accompanied by controversy. Several recent events have shown how anyone can tamper with someone else’s entry. Congressional staff members have been unmasked burnishing articles about their employers and vandalizing those of political rivals. (Sample addition: “He likes to beat his wife and children.”)

Mr. Wales himself ignored the encyclopedia’s guidelines about “Dealing With Articles About Yourself” and altered his own Wikipedia biography; when other editors undid them, he reapplied his changes. The incidents, even if few in number, do not help Wikipedia establish the legitimacy of a process that is reluctant to say no to anyone.

It should be noted that Mr. Wales is a full-time volunteer, and that neither he nor the thousands of fellow volunteer editors has a pecuniary interest in this nonprofit project. He also deserves accolades for keeping Wikipedia operating without the intrusion of advertising, at least so far.

Most winningly, he has overseen a system that is gleefully candid in its public self-examination. If you’re seeking a well-organized list of criticisms of Wikipedia, you won’t find a better place than Wikipedia’s coverage of itself. Wikipedia also provides a taxonomy of no fewer than 23 different forms of vandalism that strike it.

{ 20 of 23 forms are spam-related?

It is easy to forget how quickly Wikipedia has grown; it began only in 2001. With the passage of a little more time, Mr. Wales and his associates may come around to the idea that identifying one person as a given article’s supervising editor would enhance the encyclopedia’s reputation.

{ Versus 2005.

Mr. Wales has already responded to recent negative articles about vandalism at the site with announcements of modest reforms. Anonymous visitors are no longer permitted to create pages, though they still may edit existing ones.

{ Depends how you define “anonymous”?

To curb what Mr. Wales calls “drive-by pranks” that are concentrated on particular articles, he has instituted a policy of “semi-protection.” In these cases, a user must have registered at least four days before being permitted to make changes to the protected article. “If someone really wants to write ‘George Bush is a poopy head,’ you’ve got to wait four days,” he said.

{ Spammers immediately revised spamware to include 4-day delays from registering to posting, registering new usernames daily or more often…

When asked what problems on the site he viewed as most pressing, Mr. Wales said he was concerned with passing along the Wikipedian culture to newcomers. He sounded wistful when he spoke of the days not so long ago when he could visit an article that was the subject of a flame war and would know at least some participants — and whether they could resolve the dispute tactfully.

{ Ever since 9ll, aren’t flamewars a sign of the times?

As the project has grown, he has found that he no longer necessarily knows anyone in a group. When a dispute flared recently over an article related to a new dog breed, he looked at the discussion and asked himself in frustration, “Who are these people?”

{ Do you really know anyone? Standard warning: previous results do not guarantee future results.

Isn’t this precisely the question all users are bound to ask about contributors?

By wide agreement, the print encyclopedia in the English world reached its apogee in 1911, with the completion of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s 11th edition. (For the fullest tribute, turn to Wikipedia.) But the Wikipedia experiment need not be pushed back in time toward that model. It need only be pushed forward, so it can catch up to others with more experience in online collaboration: the open-source software movement.

Wikipedia and open-source projects like Linux are similarly noncommercial, intellectual enterprises, mobilizing volunteers who will probably never meet one another in person. But even though Wikipedians like to position their project under the open-source umbrella, the differences are wide.

Jeff Bates, a vice president of the Open Source Technology Group who oversees SourceForge.net, the host of more than 80,000 active open-source projects, said, “It makes me grind my teeth to hear Wikipedia compared to open source.” In every open-source project, he said, there is “a benevolent dictator” who ultimately takes responsibility, even though the code is contributed by many. Good stuff results only if “someone puts their name on it.”

{ Maybe. Depends how you define “name”. Depends on the dictators.

WIKIPEDIA has good stuff, too. These have been designated “featured articles.” But it will be a long while before all one-million-and-counting entries have been carefully double-checked and buffed to a high shine. Only 923 have been granted “featured” status, and the consensus-building process is presently capable of adding only about one a day.

Mr. Wales is not happy with this pace and seems open to looking again at the open-source software model for ideas. Software development that relies on scattered volunteers is a two-step process: first, a liberal policy encourages the contributions of many, then a restrictive policy follows to stabilize the code in preparation for release. Wikipedia, he said, has “half the model.”

{ There’s also the scratch your own itch aspect of OSS, which might not apply to wikis.

There’s no question that Wikipedia volunteers can address many more topics than the lumbering, for-profit incumbents like Britannica and World Book, and can update entries swiftly. Still, anonymity blocks credibility. One thing that Wikipedians have exactly right is that the current form of the encyclopedia is a beta test. The quality level that would permit speaking of Version 1.0 is still in the future.

{ Anonymous contributors might be less afraid of making mistakes, which allows them to act faster.

Randall Stross is a historian and author based in Silicon Valley. E-mail: ddomain@nytimes.com.


A halfway interesting article but why have you posted it here?

The Insane Cabbit
My Blog http://www.sounanda.com
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Send me a pm if you want cms or forum software installed (for a fee)


Seemed halfway interesting and related to DreamHost wiki.


The article is indeed interesting, although I find much of the logic fundamentally flawed. Many articles on the Wikipedia have been written by detail-oriented experts, subjected to extensive peer review, and then deeply-linked into related articles and sources to enhance value. Others begin life as simple tidbits of information that are then expanded by hundreds of interested parties, each checking the facts of the others. Such an encylopedia will easily supercede the quality and depth of any of its print counterparts, given sufficient time.

That being said, the original post has absolutely nothing to do with being Curious about DreamHost; furthermore, the only way the subject of the article is related to the DreamHost Wiki is that the Wikipedia uses the same software - a connection which is irrelevant. I’m sure a whole bunch of nuclear physicists, serial rapists, and French restaurant owners drive a Ford Focus like mine, but I’m not related to any of them.

Clearly, the article has been posted here with a specific agenda in mind.

Simon Jessey
Keystone Websites | si-blog


Then we’ll just move it to the topic area you suggested. Here’s a clue: which topics allow anonymous first posts?

You should be able to think of more connections if you tried.

From the OP article: “Biographical entries, for example, are often accompanied by controversy. Several recent events have shown how anyone can tamper with someone else’s entry. Congressional staff members have been unmasked burnishing articles about their employers and vandalizing those of political rivals. (Sample addition: “He likes to beat his wife and children.”)”

You’re involved in both wikis, and your biographical entry has been accompanied by controversy. Does that mean you still like to beat your wife and children?

Discussion of anonymous sources in wikis, such as DreamHost’s? How many minds does an anonymous source have anyway?


There aren’t any biographical entries on the DreamHost wiki that I’m aware of. User pages are not biographical entries.

I am involved in both wikis, but I don’t have a biographical entry in either of them. I once tried to create a biographical entry in the Wikipedia, but it was deleted because you aren’t supposed to do that - I didn’t realize that until I was told. The event couldn’t be described as controversial.

No, the OP article just doesn’t seem relevant. The connections between the Wikipedia and the DreamHost Wiki, such as they are, are not really significant. Anonymous contributions in any system are always going to have less value, because the validity of the contribution is harder to confirm.

Simon Jessey
Keystone Websites | si-blog


I didn’t even bother reading that crap. Looked like article spam to me. I wish we could hit a “report bad post” button to get rid of nonsense posts.

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