What do Barry Manilow, Jigglypuff and the complex socio-psychological dynamics of toilet roll orientation have in common? Yes, the clue is in the inline links. Each is the subject of an article on Wikipedia.
I’m a fan. Wikipedia is not perfect, and sometimes it can facilitate ignorance and confusion. But, much more often, it dispels the same. It is the only online initiative anyone has come up with, so far, that is capable of attempting to make some sort of sense of the morass of information that assaults us via the World Wide Web on anything like the scale that the task requires.
But, once you’ve read everything there is to know about anything ever, what else does Wikipedia have to offer? Well, it also provides an impressive dataset regarding its own evolution. Not only can you find the answer to the question that has been itching your brain, but you can also trace the history of how the answer came to be available. Every edit to Wikipedia is archived, alongside every discussion held between Wikipedians about whether that edit was good, bad or indifferent.
Which brings us to the Wikipedia article on the murder of Meredith Kercher. One area of difficulty that Wikipedia faces is in documenting current events, where the facts may not yet all be in, there is conflicting information in the press reports that are available and the Internet is invariably occupied in weaving what is available into something nearly, but not quite, as bad as a Dan Brown novel. Since Wikipedia is part of the Internet and since the case we are talking about involves the progress of the Italian legal system (a bit like watching paint dry, if we imagine what that process would be like if it took anything up to a decade), it is perhaps not surprising that the MoMK article, as it is known on Wikipedia, has long been a problem child of the project.
Sorting fact from nonsense is one obvious and ongoing challenge. Wikipedia does have a sensible rule of thumb in this regard, the doctrine of the “reliable source”. In a nutshell: if a any such source, for example a reputable newspaper, says something, then normally Wikipedia can say it too. Things do gets slightly complicated in a case such as this one, though, when there are literally millions of “reliably sourced” words available which say often contradictory and doubtful things. How is the wheat sorted from the bullshit?
And what is to be done if Wikipedia editors cannot agree as to what is a sensible narrative for the article? The Wikipedia tradition, again quite sensibly, seems to be that editors who are deemed too confrontational, irrational and generally annoying get banned, so that what is left is editors who are at least willing to talk to each other sensibly, however long it takes to translate that into a consensus about how the article should be constructed. This is a process that has been applied fairly liberally but, from what I can see, reasonably sensibly in the case of MoMK, most commonly against advocates for the innocence and purity of Amanda Knox.
So, what happens when one of these banned editors seeks his revenge by creating a blog post bemoaning the bias of the MoMK article? What if Wikipedia supremo Jimmy Wales happens to be a Knox sympathiser and the post catches his eye?
Well, it’s taken a while, but the article does seem to be progressively, if modestly, moving to a a slightly more Knoxish position, and some of the demands in the Friends of Amanda Knox communique have been met – although the shift is not as radical as might have been expected given the grave concerns initially raised by Mr Wales. One of the key areas of concern originally expressed by the Friends was that the views of a list of writers (essentially, themselves) were not represented in the article. To a small extend, this seems to have been achieved, but it looks to be very much at the expense of making a special case and lowering the bar with regards to what is noteworthy media coverage. So, notable Friend Steve Shay on the westseattleherald.com website (current frontpage deals with the hardhitting story of a swimming pool re-opening for another season) counts as a “reliable source” for the Frank Sfarzo affair and, bizarrely, blogger Candace Dempsey is cited as a source for criticism of coverage of the case. And Idaho local cable news is considered a reliable source for Knox’s innocence as stated by Greg Hampikian, now given two paragraphs in the article without mentioning that he is a consultant to Knox’s parents.
I wouldn’t grumble about all this, but why does Wikipedia not consider the Sunday Times a reliable source for “Knox’s lesbian trauma” or Sky News a reliable source for one of her various statements that she “was there“? Are these not local enough?
In fairness, you’re an idiot if you expect Wikipedia to give you an unbiased view of anything where bias is possible. Which is not meant as a broadside. I suspect many of the most active Wikipedia editors recognise that it has that particular weakness. A question that they may want to ask, though, is: how should their figurehead act in apparently contentious cases?
Jimmy Wales’ shtick is basically that he’s just acting as a regular Wikipedia editor. Which, on the face of it, may seem fair enough. He isn’t breaking any rules. He’s just raising his concerns, as anyone in the world with an Internet connection is entitled to do. And there’s no lawful reason he shouldn’t campaign on Wikipedia.Then again, there’s no lawful reason why the Queen shouldn’t participate in X Factor. But she probably just doesn’t want to look ridiculous.
For Wikipedia, I think the story is a relatively positive one, showing both the strengths and the limitations of the way it operates. It turns out that you can’t turn up en masse at a Wikipedia article – at least, one where other people are active – and just change it to your liking. What’s shown by the discussion page archives is a lot of effort expended on rather weird discussions. A lot of discussion about whether the “jurors” in the case are best described as such (jurors is a good cultural translation which most of the media use, but they are termed “citizen judges” in Italy). Something I didn’t even finish reading through about fruit juice. An attempt to construct a timeline for the evening of the murder, and consternation about why it isn’t okay to just make up times for what happened when. Arguments about whether a floorplan of the murder scene was need in the article, whether or not it should be to scale and what the correct abbreviation of “fridge” is.
In short, Friends of Amanda Knox are not getting a good return proportionate to their investment. But they are also not getting nothing. Now, it might be argued that this shows their initial complaints to be well-founded. But I don’t think so. There don’t seem to have been any significant factual changes to the article, but a slight dip in standards, so that if something has been published somewhere and the Friends like the story, it finds its way into the article. It doesn’t have to be a major news source, just a story they like.
It will be interesting to see how the article develops in future. Either this new material will eventually be confirmed as part of the “true” version of events, or else it will need to be removed at some point. But what is it that triggers that? Once Wikipedia has decided that something is controversial, what changes its mind?
If you know the answer and have contact with a minor local news website, send me an email and maybe we can organise some pressure for it to be included in the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia.