Fact, fabrication, and the Internet

I love pondering issues like this. The Atlantic headline and subtitle pretty much explain it:

"How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit"

T. Miles Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet. 

Yes, truth. And the Internet. As the article points out, trust is often built in (or is lacking) in the types of communities depending on it to get the hard facts, the real truth, about things like, oh, history. And with the fractured and anonymous nature of communities and identities online, the entire process of garnering truth and facts from the Internet poses problems; there is a lack of distinct trust.

This is what Reddit, the social news website, does have compared to a website like Wikipedia. Reddit users, with their internal community and forum-based responses and discourse, were able to see the clues and suspicious bits surrounding T. Miles Kelly's students' fabricated experiment in Internet deceivery--an intentional task aimed at exactly this point: who and what is the source of the information you find online?

The Georgia Mason University professor spends a whole semester on this point, in a course he teaches called Lying About the Past. And even though, this time around, Reddit broke open the whole faked case in a matter of hours, the lesson was still there:

The students may have failed to pull off a spectacular hoax, but they surely learned a tremendous amount in the process. "Why would I design a course," Kelly asks on his syllabus, "that is both a study of historical hoaxes and then has the specific aim of promoting a lie (or two) about the past?" Kelly explains that he hopes to mold his students into "much better consumers of historical information," and at the same time, "to lighten up a little" in contrast to "overly stuffy" approaches to the subject. He defends his creative approach to teaching the mechanics of the historian's craft, and plans to convert the class from an experimental course into a regular offering.

There were certainly people, like the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, who are enraged by this kind of flagrant misuse of a website like Wikipedia--where the point is to fabricate on purpose, adding plausible, if slightly far-fetched, tidbits to historical Wikipedia entries and seeing how much they can get away with.

But the whole point is to think more carefully, more deeply, about the source of information. His approach is stunning to me, who until very recently had been a constant student of history courses over the span of two degrees. It is essential to make sure young historians understand these lessons. So I am all for his unorthodox methods. After all, with an online encyclopedia that is built on trust, and especially, on goodwill and a common interest, one can spend a bit of time ruminating on what might occur if someone sought to sabotage such an effort, with tiny and insidious bits of fabricated "history." It is an extreme example of what we know to be existent in many other kinds of sources too, including the heralded Ink-and-Paper-Book.


Things you didn't know about Wikipedia

Lately, I've been learning a lot about the world's languages and the way language and words mingle throughout cultural relations and our modern lives. It all comes out in the weekly podcast "The World in Words," available free from the same people who do "The World" broadcast on NPR. The half-hour show is filled with trivia on languages, odd words, untranslatable phrases, political jargon, and other points of interest. The last two weeks I've learned some random interesting things about Wikipedia. While the English Wikipedia has over 2.8 million entries, the next-largest is the German Wiki, which lags far behind that in size. However, host Patrick Cox points out that it is no less thorough in its encyclopedic knowledge. What the German version is lacking that accounts for the massive size difference is the thousands upon thousands of "stubs" and entries explaining very tiny elements of American or English pop culture. Stubs themselves are incomplete articles that might eventually be deleted, defining very trivial parts of culture. And the other, more extensive but equally as trivial entries might be credited to people who are experts on very specific things-- say, for instance, if I wrote a whole huge entry on every detail of the Home Alone movie series. The distinction between German-language Wiki and English-language Wiki is this stringent weeding out of trivial knowledge. The German focus is to make Wikipedia the same caliber as any printed, published academia-based encyclopedia. The English-language one is, therefore, much larger, and filled with much more specific detail. This is not a bad thing-- plenty of times I have needed a random factoid answered that has been a bother in my head, and have eased my mind with Wiki. It's just quite an interesting cultural thing to consider.

It also baffled me to learn of the barriers that some language systems have overcome to streamline their own Wikipedias. Chinese language, for example, has two writing systems-- traditional characters and simplified characters (the latter has been pushed and taught since the mid-20th century). Some articles were being written in simplified, some in traditional, and the characters are different enough to cause a problem for readers who can't read both systems. Chinese programmers hastily developed a way to duplicate the articles into both, solving the issue. The predicament only gets tougher for Kazakh speakers, though: they have three writing systems. This is an element of global language barriers that I have never thought of before-- that one language when spoken could have three possible translations into writing. The language in Kazakhstan can be written in the Cyrillic alphabet (like Russian), the Roman/Latin alphabet (like English), and in the Arabic right-to-left format. Adapting a system this complicated to modern world is breathtaking.

And one more trivial bit of knowledge lies in the Spanish-language Wiki. Drama erupted in 2002 after a mere mention of putting advertising on Wiki article pages enraged a group of contributors; they split from Wiki and began their own user-written encyclopedia Web site, Enciclopedia Libre. Eventually things were mended (because it had been literally just an online conversation that contained the thought of advertising), but the remarkable thing is the power of the individual in something as big as Wiki, on something so big as the Internet.

I am, after all, just one person, putting my thoughts here. :)