It’s the first lesson any parent should teach a child about the Internet: never automatically believe a word you read there. And for the academically inclined youngster, that includes every cribber’s favourite, Wikipedia.
Here’s a new tool that might help the fastidious among us to delve a little deeper into Wikipedia’s genius, which also happens to be its greatest weakness – it is edited by anyone and everyone. It’s a simple tool, called the Wikipedia Scanner, which is the inspired work of a CelTech graduate called Virgil Griffith.
It is a simple idea, a searchable database of Wikipedia edits that relates them to their source IP or address owner from which they were made. Some people making edits do so using a user name, but this database also tracks the sleight of hand that comes with anonymous editors.
So, to pick a random example, you can see that the Wikipedia entry on Anglo-Dutch food company Unilever shows a large number of edits were made from blocks of IP addresses that show the work of company employees. We can even see how many were made from which IP address.
The idea came out of the controversy surrounding voting machine company Diebold, which was heavily criticised for the security of their voting machines as used in US elections. The company was accused of editing its Wiki entry to remove unfavourable but accurate information on the company’s affairs.
As important as what we read on Wikipedia, then, is what we are not able to read, and who has edited an entry to make it so. We should give thanks that there are people like Virgil Griffith, who put the tools of self-knowledge into our and hands. Long may we be dragged kicking and howling down the gloomy alley of individual and corporate vanity.
You can read about him on Wikipedia, of course. Just don’t believe a word of it.