The popular Web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia has revolutionized the way people learn. Free, multilingual, and written and edited collaboratively by volunteers, the site covers such a broad depth of topics from so many different angles that the effect is staggering.
But in some circles, Wikipedia is like an information technology boogie man, considered wholly untrustworthy. This is because of its potential for inaccuracy. Wikipedia admits this — its entry on itself states “critics argue that Wikipedia’s open nature and a lack of proper sources for much of the information makes it unreliable.”
Much of the information contained on Wikipedia (such as the above statement) is tagged with citations verifying it as being corroborated by an outside source. But that doesn’t necessarily ensure the information is accurate.
For example, last year I bought the album “Fresh” by Sly & the Family Stone on CD. This year, I bought the newly released reissue of the same album.
In playing the new reissue, I found it was noticeably different from the old CD version, and I wasn’t sure why. Eventually, in reading the Wikipedia entries for Sly Stone, Sly & the Family Stone and every Sly & the Family Stone album individually, I discovered why.
The entry for “Fresh” noted: “Stone held on to the ‘Fresh’ masters well beyond the record’s official release, constantly remixing and rerecording the tracks. As a result, alternate and significantly different versions of at least 10 songs from the album are known to exist. In 1991, Sony Music, by then owner of the Epic catalog, accidentally issued a sequencing of ‘Fresh’ on CD, featuring alternate takes of every song except ‘In Time,’ which remained unchanged. Sony immediately recalled and replaced the CDs with the standard 1973 version of the album. When Sony BMG reissued ‘Fresh’ in CD and digital download formats for Sly & the Family Stone’s 40th anniversary, five of the alternate takes were included as bonus tracks.”
This solved the mystery — I had somehow managed to buy one of the recalled, further evolved versions of this album, and I might not have ever known that without Wikipedia’s assistance (you have to search a lot to find anything else about this on the Web).
But the Wikipedia entry was wrong on one aspect of this story: It claimed “five of the alternate takes were included as bonus tracks.” No, they weren’t — if you compare the bonus tracks on “Fresh” to the alternate takes on the recalled version, they don’t match.
What is included in the 2007 reissue is alternate mixes of tracks from “Fresh,” which are different from alternate takes. It’s not surprising that the wiki entry got this wrong, as its source was an offhanded comment at the end of a review of the reissue of “Fresh” by the Orlando Weekly.
So, for the first time, I set out to edit Wikipedia myself. I changed that passage to read “When Sony BMG reissued ‘Fresh’ in CD and digital download formats for Sly & the Family Stone’s 40th anniversary, four alternate mixes were included as bonus tracks. These, however, are different from the recalled alternate takes, which remain unavailable.”
Within five minutes of my making that change, the entry had been changed back to read as it did before, with the inaccuracy intact.
Annoyed, I thought, “That means Wikipedia doesn’t function as it should — it reverted to an inaccuracy just for the sake of being rigid.”
But when I checked back again a day later, my revision was intact. It’d been approved. Wikipedia works!
Here’s another example of Wikipedia’s powers of self-regulation. I was reading the Wikipedia entry on Wendy’s and noticed I was able to click through to an entry for the fast food chain’s new Baconator sandwich.
Often, Wikipedia entries have warnings at the top such as “This article documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses.” But the entry for the Baconator had an unusual cautionary statement: “Warning: The subject of this article can smell your fear.”
Now, I don’t know whether this is true — I’d have to eat the Baconator to know for sure. And even then, I wouldn’t have confirmation because I’m not really scared of the Baconator (although my general practitioner probably is).
But it doesn’t matter because within hours of my noticing this odd entry, it had disappeared from Wikipedia. So citizens of Earth can rest soundly, knowing the information they glean from Wikipedia is benefiting from some amount of fact checking, and that fear-smelling cheeseburgers don’t really exist.
–Daniel Margolis, firstname.lastname@example.org