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Wikipedia and the Matter of Accountability

A. Charles Muller

June 14, 2010

For what is probably a large majority of web users, Wikipedia is simply wonderful, as a ready source of up-to-date information, reflecting the fact that the large majority of web surfers belong to the “end user” category. For persons like myself, however, who are involved in the development of rigorous, responsible, and original online reference materials, Wikipedia is like a cancer growing on the Internet, silently and anonymously leeching off the creative work from web pages developed by artists and intellectuals. Those of us who find that our work has been appropriated, are, of course, permitted to present their case to the Wikipedia copyright violations section for their perusal. But by the time you happen to find that your work has been copied into Wikipedia, it has usually already been propagated all over the net by Wikipedia copycats, making the job of going through their copyright infringement office basically irrelevant. And, of course, the information that is copied is often lifted in small bits, which may not legally qualify as copyright violations.

Unfortunately, most “end-users” that I talk to — even colleagues in my field — are happy to just be able to surf and grab whatever information they can get from wherever they can get it, and thus they see no particular problems with Wikipedia. But for those who are expending the energy to create new web-based resources, Wikipedia can be the cause of terrible discouragement.

As Jaron Lanier has pointed out in his book You Are Not A Gadget , the basic design of Wikipedia is that of decision making by mob rule, wherein the majority of the stupid drown out the voices of the intelligent and educated. He also makes the interesting observation that it is precisely the anonymous character of Wikipedia that makes it unassailable — strikingly similar in this sense to religious scripture, which is also anonymously multivoiced, and thus, ironically, “authoritative.” No one on Wikipedia takes direct credit for anything, thus, there is no responsibility involved.

An even scarier observation made by Lanier is that of Wikipedia and other web aggregation sites resulting in the actual stifling of creativity, rather than its stimulation. As a professional musician, Lanier has noticed that since the development of the web, there have been no major new developmental trends in music. In my own observation of Wikipedia and other aggregation sites, I concur with the fact that what we basically see is the continued recycling and regurgitation of old materials, and rarely the creation of new ones, with their creator's names attached. This is at least partially attributable to the fact that new information is scooped up by the aggregators, and combined with other materials, dissimulating true origin and authorship.

As far as Larry Lessig and the Creative Commons are concerned: While I was originally a staunch supporter of the idea that some sort of Open Source model could also be applied to literary, reference, and other forms of cultural works, I've come to have misgivings. 1 When I tried the Creative Commons license, what ended up happening was that most people, without reading the fine print, just took it as a sign that they could copy anything they wanted from my web site — and this is why I went back to using a regular copyright mark for my web documents. While Larry's chief concerns (as I understood them) about copyright being controlled by large corporations were no doubt justified at the time, I think that in a few short years the Web has gone quite far in the other direction, where the Web 2.0 and all of its manifestations work in such a way that the most numerous and most noisy drown out the voices of the sane and knowledgable.

In this sense, it was extremely lucky that my own Digital Dictionary of Buddhism project [DDB] (which rigorously documents sources and authorship) got a solid head start on Wikipedia in 1995. It would be considerably more difficult to get something like that off the ground today, as it would be difficult to draw attention to it. As Jaron Lanier points out, most collaborative web projects based on solid learning, carried out by individuals who clearly state their name and credentials, seem to have died, or atrophied with the appearance of Wikipedia. Understandably so, since, for some reason, it is usually the Wikipedia entry that appears at the top of the list in topical web searches. It is my belief that the continued development of Wikipedia along its present trajectory is extremely unhealthy in its clear tendency to drown out responsible discourse, and will discourage young scholars from publishing their own clearly documented and thoroughly researched work in the web environment. Intelligent people need to raise clear, loud, objections to this trend.

Is there a Solution?

My dealings with administrative people at Wikipedia, and with many of its staunch supporters (even colleagues in my field) gives me the clear impression that Wikipedia is already so deeply invested in the present model of anonymity (and thus, non-responsibility) and that since this is seen by them as being ethically non-problematic, that there is not much likelihood of seeing a change in their mode of operation based on complaints such as those expressed here. What is needed, I think, is a concentrated effort on the part of well-trained, honest academic specialists to begin to create their own field-Wikis. It is not the technology itself that is problematic — it is the way that it is being used that is problematic.

As Joseph Raben pointed out in his special address to the DH 2010 conference in London, the present state of affairs wherein the flow and distribution of knowledge has been handed over to the control of Google and Wikipedia is in great part due to the slowness of academic institutions and disciplines in realizing the inevitability of the Web as the new medium for all kinds of publication, and thus these are still mostly dumb to the notion of figuring out how to give due credit for works published on the web. Thus, scholars are not at all encouraged to pursue this approach. Again, I believe that the DDB stands out as one type of model for the way this can be done, but there is no doubt an infinite range of further approaches to be pursued in this area. I encourage academics who are serving on committees in their universities connected with teaching, research, and publication, to begin to raise this issue vocally.

Charles Muller

Center for Evolving Humanities

University of Tokyo


1. While Andy Keen's The Cult of the Amateur has been lambasted by Larry Lessig and a large number of bloggers for some factual errors, I do think the main thrust of his argument is worthy of consideration. You can see the book reviewed in the New York Times.