Particularly noteworthy controversies about Wikipedia's content and editors have attracted wide and unfavorable media attention. Critics have used the Seigenthaler and Essjay incidents to call Wikipedia's reliability and usefulness as a reference into question. Wikipedia has also been the subject of parody and other humorous criticism.
"to the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an "encyclopedia". This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn't know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do.
"If what we today know as 'Wikipedia' had started life as something called, let's say —'Jimbo's Big Bag O'Trivia'— we doubt if it would be the problem it has become. Wikipedia is indeed, as its supporters claim, a phenomenal source of pop culture trivia. Maybe a 'Big Bag O'Trivia' is all Jimbo [Jimmy Wales] ever wanted. Maybe not.
"For sure a libel is a libel, but the outrage would have been far more muted if the Wikipedia project didn't make such grand claims for itself. The problem with this vanity exercise is one that it's largely created for itself. The public has a firm idea of what an 'encyclopedia' is, and it's a place where information can generally be trusted, or at least slightly more trusted than what a labyrinthine, mysterious bureaucracy can agree upon, and surely more trustworthy than a piece of spontaneous graffiti—and Wikipedia is a king-sized cocktail of the two.
A number of academics – such as Sarah Deutch, dean of social sciences and professor of history at Duke University, and Margaret Humphries, professor of history and associate clinical professor of medicine at Duke – have criticized Wikipedia for its perceived failure as a reliable source. A related if somewhat ad hominem criticism is that many Wikipedia editors do not have degrees or other credentials generally recognized in academia. The use of Wikipedia is not accepted in many schools and universities in writing a formal paper. Several educational institutions have blocked Wikipedia in the past while others have limited its use to only a pointer to external sources. University of Maryland professor of physics Robert L. Park has characterized Wikipedia as a target for "purveyors of pseudoscience.
Some academic journals do refer to Wikipedia articles, but are not elevating it to the same level as traditional references. For instance, Wikipedia articles have been referenced in "enhanced perspectives" provided on-line in the journal Science. The first of these perspectives to provide a hyperlink to Wikipedia was "A White Collar Protein Senses Blue Light, and dozens of enhanced perspectives have provided such links since then. The publisher of Science states that these enhanced perspectives "include hypernotes - which link directly to websites of other relevant information available online - beyond the standard bibliographic references.
Some librarians, academics, and editors of other encyclopedias consider it to have little utility as a reference work. Most university lecturers discourage students from citing any encyclopedia in academic work, preferring primary sources. One university program and several schools have even banned Wikipedia citations specifically.
Wikipedia's policies state that assertions should be supported by reliable, published sources—ideally, by peer reviewed publications. Jimmy Wales, the de facto leader of Wikipedia, stresses that encyclopedias of any type are not usually appropriate as primary sources, and should not be relied upon as authoritative.
"The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him."
Wikipedia contains no formal peer review process for fact-checking, and due to the lack of requiring qualifications to edit any article, the contributors themselves may not be well-versed in the topics they write about. As the cultural commentator Paul Vallely put it, writing in The Independent on the subject of Wikipedia:
"Using it is like asking questions of a bloke you met in the pub. He might be a nuclear physicist. Or he might be a fruitcake.
Due to lack of intrinsic authority, Wikipedia has been also criticized for relying too much on citing sources, particularly in disputed articles, instead of relying on expert authority for the credibility of its contents.
In December 2005 the journal Nature conducted a single-blind study comparing the accuracy of a sample articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. The sample included 42 articles on scientific topics, including biographies of well-known scientists. The articles were compared for accuracy by academic reviewers that remained anonymous − a customary practice for journal article reviews. Based on their review, the average Wikipedia article contained 4 errors or omissions; the average Britannica article, 3. The study concluded:
Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries, a Nature investigation finds.Encyclopædia Britannica's initial concerns led to Nature releasing further documentation of its survey method. Based on this additional information, Encyclopædia Britannica denied the validity of the Nature study, claiming that it was "fatally flawed" as the Britannica extracts were compilations that sometimes included articles written for the youth version. Nature acknowledged the compiled nature of some of the Britannica extracts, but disputed the claim that this invalidated the conclusions of the study. Encyclopædia Britannica also argued that the Nature study showed that while the error rate between the two encyclopedias was similar, a breakdown of the errors indicated that the mistakes in Wikipedia were more often the inclusion of incorrect facts, while the mistakes in Britannica were "errors of omission", claiming that
Britannica was far more accurate than Wikipedia according to the figures; the journal simply misrepresented its own results.Nature has since rejected the Britannica response and published a point-by-point response to Britannica's specific objections about alleged errors.
Inaccurate information that is not obviously false may persist in Wikipedia for a long time before it is challenged. The most prominent cases reported by mainstream media involved biographies of living persons.
The Seigenthaler incident demonstrated that the subject of a biographical article must sometimes fix blatant lies about his own life. In November 2005, a user edited the biographical article on John Seigenthaler Sr. so that it contained several false and defamatory statements. The inaccurate claims went unnoticed between May and September 2005 when they were discovered by Victor S. Johnson, Jr., a friend of Seigenthaler. Wikipedia content is often mirrored at sites such as Answers.com, which means that incorrect information can be replicated alongside correct information through a number of web sources. Such information can develop a misleading air of authority because of its presence at such sites:
Then [Siegenthaler's] son discovered that his father's hoax biography also appeared on two other sites, Reference.com and Answers.com, which took direct feeds from Wikipedia. It was out there for four months before Seigenthaler realised and got the Wikipedia entry replaced with a more reliable account. The lies remained for another three weeks on the mirror sites downstream.
In another example, on March 2, 2007, MSNBC.com reported that Hillary Rodham Clinton had been incorrectly listed for 20 months in her Wikipedia biography as valedictorian of her class of 1969 at Wellesley College. (Hillary Rodham was not the valedictorian, though she did speak at commencement.) The article included a link to the Wikipedia edit, where the incorrect information was added on July 9, 2005. After the MSNBC report, the inaccurate information was removed the same day. Between the two edits, the wrong information had stayed in the Clinton article while it was edited more than 4,800 times over 20 months.
Attempts to perpetrate hoaxes may not be confined to editing Wikipedia articles. In October 2005 Alan Mcilwraith, a former call centre worker from Scotland created a Wikipedia article in which he claimed to be a highly decorated war hero. The article was quickly identified by other users as unreliable (see Wikipedia Signpost/2006-04-17/Persistent hoax). However, Mcilwraith had also succeeded in convincing a number of charities and media organizations that he was who he claimed to be:
The 28-year-old, who calls himself Captain Sir Alan McIlwraith, KBE, DSO, MC, has mixed with celebrities for at least one fundraising event.
But last night, an Army spokesman said: "I can confirm he is a fraud. He has never been an officer, soldier or Army cadet."
There have also been instances of users deliberately inserting false information into Wikipedia in order to test the system and demonstrate its alleged unreliability. Television personality Stephen Colbert lampooned this drawback of Wikipedia, calling it wikiality.
Wikipedia's radical openness means that any given article may be, at any given moment, in a bad state: for example, it could be in the middle of a large edit or it could have been recently vandalized. While blatant vandalism is usually easily spotted and rapidly corrected, Wikipedia is certainly more subject to subtle vandalism than a typical reference work.
"I keep hearing from my readers (many of whom I’m guessing are Wikipedians or ex-Wikipedians) that attaining NPOV is impossible, that everyone has bias and introduces it in some way...Can anyone write from an NPOV? Doesn’t everyone have inherent biases?Other critics allege that NPOV privileges "mainstream points of view" and imagines that they are neutral, when often mainstream points of view legitimize existing power relations. These critics also argue that NPOV accepts mainstream ideas about what is "radical" and "progressive," rather than applying a consistent standard of critique and assessment to "mainstream" and "progressive" contributions.
The 2005 Nature study also reported on the outcomes of two scientific disputes on Wikipedia. The first dispute was on the topic of violence in schizophrenia, and pitted the neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell against some anonymous editors. Nature did not report on the outcome of this first dispute. The second dispute reported by Nature involved the climate researcher William Connolley, again opposed by anonymous editors. (editor's note: Nature considered anonymous editors that did not use their real names). The topic in this second dispute was climate change; Nature reported that this dispute was far more protracted, and led to arbitration, which took three months to produce a decision. The outcome of arbitration, as reported by Nature, was a six-month parole for Connolley − during this time he was restricted to one revert per day. Connolley's opponents were reportedly banned from editing climate articles also for six months.
In April 2008, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) organized an e-mail campaign to correct perceived Israel-related biases and inconsistencies in Wikipedia. Excerpts of some of the e-mails were published in the July 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine under the title of "Candid camera". CAMERA argued the excerpts were unrepresenative and that it had campaigned "toward encouraging people to learn about and edit the online encyclopedia for accuracy". Five editors involved in the campaign were sanctioned by Wikipedia administrators.
On August 31 2008, The New York Times ran an article detailing the edits made to the biography of Sarah Palin in the wake of her nomination as running mate of John McCain. The editor responsible for adding many flattering details was identified as single-purpose account of a McCain campaign volunteer.
Rush Limbaugh, an American conservative political commentator and radio personality who has been familiar with Wikipedia since at least November 2005, has called Wikipedia "liberal" on his long-running and popular radio show.
In story covered by the BBC, former Novell chief scientist Jeffrey Merkey claimed that in exchange for a donation his Wikipedia entry was edited in his favor. Jay Walsh, a spokesman for Wikipedia, flatly denied the allegations in an interview given to the Daily Telegraph.
In a story covered by InformationWeek, Eric Goldman, assistant law professor at Santa Clara University in California argued that "eventually, marketers will build scripts to edit Wikipedia pages to insert links and conduct automated attacks on Wikipedia", thus putting the encyclopedia beyond the ability of its editors to provide countermeasures against the attackers, particularly because of a vicious circle where the strain of responding to these attacks drives core contributors away, increasing the strain on those who remain.
to create minor public-relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike (and) to see what 'interesting organizations' are up to.News stories appeared about IP addresses from various organizations such as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Diebold, Inc. and the Australian government being used to make edits to Wikipedia articles, sometimes of an opinionated or questionable nature. The BBC quoted a Wikipedia spokesperson as praising the tool: "We really value transparency and the scanner really takes this to another level. Wikipedia Scanner may prevent an organisation or individuals from editing articles that they're really not supposed to. Another story stated that an IP address from the BBC itself had been used to vandalize the article on George W. Bush.
The WikiScanner story was also covered by The Independent, which stated that many "censorial interventions" by editors with vested interests on a variety of articles in Wikipedia had been discovered:
"[Wikipedia] was hailed as a breakthrough in the democratisation of knowledge. But the online encyclopedia has since been hijacked by forces who decided that certain things were best left unknown... Now a website designed to monitor editorial changes made on Wikipedia has found thousands of self-serving edits and traced them to their original source. It has turned out to be hugely embarrassing for armies of political spin doctors and corporate revisionists who believed their censorial interventions had gone unnoticed.
Jimmy Wales, who played a central role in the founding of Wikipedia, spoke enthusiastically about Wikipedia Scanner: "It's awesome -- I love it...It brings an additional level of transparency to what's going on at Wikipedia...Wikipedia Scanner uses information we've been making publicly available forever, hoping someone would do something like this.
The WikiScanner is thus an important development in bringing down a pernicious influence on our intellectual life. Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that; it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions.
Jossi Fresco may bear the most extreme conflict of interest in the history of Wikipedia - and he edits the policy that governs conflict of interest.
Some of the most scathing criticism of Wikipedia's claimed neutrality came in The Register, which in turn was allegedly criticized by founding members of the project. According to The Register:
In short, Wikipedia is a cult. Or at least, the inner circle is a cult. We aren't the first to make this observation.
On the inside, they reinforce each other's beliefs. And if anyone on the outside questions those beliefs, they circle the wagons. They deny the facts. They attack the attacker. After our Jossi Fresco story, Fresco didn't refute our reporting. He simply accused us of "yellow journalism". After our Overstock.com article, Wales called us "trash".
"Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. By those measures, American National Biography Online easily outdistances Wikipedia."
Contrasting Wikipedia's treatment of Abraham Lincoln to that of Civil War historian James McPherson in American National Biography Online, he acknowledges that both are essentially accurate and cover the major episodes in Lincoln's life, but praises "McPherson’s richer contextualization… his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln’s voice … and … his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words." By contrast, he cites an example of Wikipedia's prose that he finds "both verbose and dull." Further, he contrasts "the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian" displayed by McPherson and others to the "antiquarianism" of Wikipedia (which he compares in this respect to American Heritage magazine), and states that while Wikipedia often provides extensive references, they are not the best ones. Still, he acknowledges that "not all historians write as well as McPherson and [Alan] Brinkley, and some of the better-written Wikipedia entries provide more engaging portraits than some sterile and routine entries in American National Biography Online.
Rosenzweig also criticizes the "waffling—encouraged by the npov policy—[that] means that it is hard to discern any overall interpretive stance in Wikipedia history." He cites as an example of this the conclusion of Wikipedia's article on William Clarke Quantrill. While generally praising the article, he nonetheless points to its "waffling" conclusion: "Some historians…remember him as an opportunistic, bloodthirsty outlaw, while others continue to view him as a daring soldier and local folk hero."
Other critics have made similar charges that, even if Wikipedia articles are factually accurate, they are often written in a poor, almost unreadable style. Frequent Wikipedia critic Andrew Orlowski commented: "Even when a Wikipedia entry is 100 per cent factually correct, and those facts have been carefully chosen, it all too often reads as if it has been translated from one language to another then into to a third, passing an illiterate translator at each stage.
In article in The Times of London Jimmy Wales stood by the quality of the presentation in Wikipedia:
“I am unaware of any problems with the quality of discourse on the site,” he said. “I don’t know of any higher-quality discourse anywhere.”
Wales emphasized Wikipedia's differences, and asserted that openness and transparency lead to quality. Hoiberg claimed that he “had neither the time nor space to respond to [criticisms]” and “could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia,” to which Wales responded: “No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article,” and included a link to the Wikipedia article Criticism of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia has been accused of systemic bias, which is to say, its general nature leads without necessarily any conscious intention, to the propagation of various prejudices. Although many articles in newspapers have concentrated on minor indeed trivial factual errors in Wikipedia articles, there are also concerns about large scale, presumably unintentional effects from the increasing influence and use of Wikipedia as a research tool at all levels. In an article in the Times Higher Education magazine (London) the radical philosopher Martin Cohen accused Wikipedia of having "become a monopoly" with "all the prejudices and ignorance of its creators imposed too". Cohen cites the examples of the Wikipedia entries on Maoism (which he implies is unfairly characterised as simply the use of violence to impose political ends) and Socrates who (on Wikipedia at least) is "Plato's teacher who left behind not very many writings". This last, to readers of the Times Higher Education at least, is patent nonsense, but illustrates the shallow knowledge base of editors who then proceed to make sweeping judgements. There are many other instances which have been discussed both within and outside Wikipedia of the supposed 'Western, 'white' bias of the encyclopedia, such as the assertion that 'philosophy' as an activity is essentially a European invention and discovery. Cohen accuses Wikipedia's editors of having a 'youthful cab-drivers' perspective, by which he means they are strongly opinionated and lack the tools of serious researchers to adopt a more objective standpoint.
Another example of claimed systemic bias is the tendency to cover topics in a detail disproportionate to their importance. As an example, Stephen Colbert once mock-praised Wikipedia for having a "longer entry on 'lightsabers' than it does on the 'printing press.'" In an interview with The Guardian, Dale Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief of Encyclopædia Britannica, noted:
people write of things they're interested in, and so many subjects don't get covered; and news events get covered in great detail. In the past, the entry on Hurricane Frances was more than five times the length of that on Chinese art, and the entry on Coronation Street was twice as long as the article on Tony Blair.This flaw has been the subject of a game known as "Wikigroaning", a term coined by Jon "DocEvil" Hendren of the website Something Awful. In the game, two articles (preferably with similar names) are compared: one about a serious subject and the other about a topic important only to a select group of fans. Critics of Wikipedia concede that the encyclopedia's coverage of pop culture does not impose space constraints on the coverage of more "serious" subjects, as spelled out in the "Wiki is not paper" article. As Ivor Tossell noted:
That Wikipedia is chock full of useless arcana (and did you know, by the way, that the article on "Debate" is shorter than the piece that weighs the relative merits of the 1978 and 2003 versions of Battlestar Galactica?) isn't a knock against it: Since it can grow infinitely, the silly articles aren't depriving the serious ones of space.
The level of trivia on Wikipedia is kept in check by guidelines on notability. Online comics are particularly susceptible to deletions due to alleged lack of notability. Various theories have been proposed to explain this apparent contradiction with the lack of space constraints referenced above, including censorship to make the encyclopedia appear more "respectable" to media sources; or favoritism for particular comics, etc. and against others on the part of editors.
Wikipedia's notability guidelines (de facto policies), and the application thereof, is the subject of much criticism.
Nicholson Baker considers the notability standards arbitrary and essentially unsolvable:
There are quires, reams, bales of controversy over what constitutes notability in Wikipedia: nobody will ever sort it out.Criticizing the "deletionists", Nicholson Baker then writes:
Still, a lot of good work—verifiable, informative, brain-leapingly strange—is being cast out of this paperless, infinitely expandable accordion folder by people who have a narrow, almost grade-schoolish notion of what sort of curiosity an on-line encyclopedia will be able to satisfy in the years to come.
[...] It's harder to improve something that's already written, or to write something altogether new, especially now that so many of the World Book–sanctioned encyclopedic fruits are long plucked. There are some people on Wikipedia now who are just bullies, who take pleasure in wrecking and mocking peoples' work—even to the point of laughing at nonstandard "Engrish." They poke articles full of warnings and citation-needed notes and deletion prods till the topics go away.
Complaining that his own biography was on the verge of deletion for lack of notability, Timothy Noah argued that:
Wikipedia's notability policy resembles U.S. immigration policy before 9/11: stringent rules, spotty enforcement. To be notable, a Wikipedia topic must be "the subject of multiple, non-trivial published works from sources that are reliable and independent of the subject and of each other." Although I have written or been quoted in such works, I can't say I've ever been the subject of any. And wouldn't you know, some notability cop cruised past my bio and pulled me over. Unless I get notable in a hurry—win the Nobel Peace Prize? Prove I sired Anna Nicole Smith's baby daughter?—a "sysop" (volunteer techie) will wipe my Wikipedia page clean. It's straight out of Philip K. Dick.In the same article, Noah mentions that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stacy Schiff had to write her own biography on Wikipedia because no other editor considered her notable enough.
Wikipedia has a range of tools available to users and Administrators in order to combat vandalism. Supporters of the project argue that the vast majority of vandalism on Wikipedia is reverted within a short time, and a study by Fernanda Viégas of the MIT Media Lab and Martin Wattenberg and Kushal Dave of IBM Research found that most vandal edits were reverted within around five minutes. While most instances of page blanking or the addition of offensive material are soon reverted, less obvious vandalism has remained for longer periods. For example, a user made several racist edits to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day that were not reverted for nearly four hours. Columnist Sujay Kumar commented: "While Wikipedia says that most vandal edits are removed within five minutes, some falsities have managed to go unnoticed. An outlandishly fake entry about Larry King's uncontrollable flatulence was posted for a month.
A peer-reviewed study that measured the actual number of page views with "damaged" content, concluded:
42% of damage is repaired almost immediately, i.e., before it can confuse, offend, or mislead anyone. Nonetheless, there are still hundreds of millions of damaged views.
The concern in the case of Wikipedia is the right of a private citizen to remain private; to remain a "private citizen" rather than a "public figure" in the eyes of the law. It is somewhat of a battle between the right to be anonymous in cyberspace and the right to be anonymous in real life ("meatspace"). Wikipedia Watch argues that "Wikipedia is a potential menace to anyone who values privacy" and that "a greater degree of accountability in the Wikipedia structure" would be "the very first step toward resolving the privacy problem.
A particular problem occurs in the case of an individual who is relatively unimportant and for whom there exists a Wikipedia page against their wishes.
In January 2006, a German court ordered the German Wikipedia shut down within Germany due to it stating the full name of Boris Floricic, aka "Tron", a deceased hacker who was formerly with the Chaos Computer Club. More specifically, the court ordered that the URL within the German .de domain (http://www.wikipedia.de/) may no longer redirect to the encyclopedia's servers in Florida at http://de.wikipedia.org/, though since German readers were still able to use the US-based URL directly, there was not really any loss of access on their part. The court order arose out of a lawsuit filed by Floricic's parents, demanding that their son's surname be removed from Wikipedia. On February 9, 2006, the injunction against Wikimedia Deutschland was overturned, with the court rejecting the notion that Tron's right to privacy or that of his parents were being violated. The plaintiffs appealed to the Berlin state court, but were refused relief in May 2006.
The community has been described as "cult-like, although not always with entirely negative connotations. A popular joke is that Wikipedia cannot possibly work in theory, but does work in practice. A larger social community also helps in maintaining a supportive atmosphere and collective etiquette, such as resolving disputes by appealing to reliable sources and Wikipedia's own policies.
Wikipedia does not require that its users identify themselves. This anonymity has been criticized, since it does not allow editors to be held accountable for their edits. It also means that multiple people may use one account—or, more often, one person may use multiple accounts, often in an attempt to influence an argument. The latter practice is known as "sock puppetry," which is actively discouraged on Wikipedia.
Stacy Schiff notes in her editorial about Wikipedia that
Wikipedia is an online community devoted not to last night’s party or to next season’s iPod but to a higher good. It is also no more immune to human nature than any other utopian project. Pettiness, idiocy, and vulgarity are regular features of the site. Nothing about high-minded collaboration guarantees accuracy, and open editing invites abuse.
Many scientists would like to help make sure this resource remains accurate, but they have no desire to navigate the treacherous waters of Wikipedia's editorial system, which accords them no official role.
In July 2006 The New Yorker ran a feature about Wikipedia by Stacy Schiff. Experts including the president of Encyclopædia Britannica, Jorge Cauz, and Wikipedia's de facto leader Jimmy Wales, gave their opinions on the future of Wikipedia. Cauz stated that Wikipedia risked a "decline into a hulking, mediocre mass of uneven, unreliable, and, many times, unreadable articles" and that "Wikipedia is to Britannica as American Idol is to the Juilliard School." Wales countered by stating that he would consider Britannica a competitor, “except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within five years.”
The New Yorker article included an interview with a Administrators known by the pseudonym Essjay, who was described in the article as a tenured professor of theology. Essjay's Wikipedia user page (now removed) made the following claim:
I am a tenured professor of theology at a private university in the eastern United States; I teach both undergraduate and graduate theology. I have been asked repeatedly to reveal the name of the institution, however, I decline to do so; I am unsure of the consequences of such an action, and believe it to be in my best interests to remain anonymous.''
Essjay also claimed on his user page that he held four academic degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), and Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD). Essjay specialized in editing articles about religion on Wikipedia, including subjects such as "the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara"; on one occasion he was called in to give some "expert testimony" on the status of Mary in the Roman Catholic Church. In January 2007, Essjay was hired as a manager with Wikia, a wiki-hosting service founded by Wales and Angela Beesley. In February, Wales appointed Essjay as a member of the Arbitration Committee, a group with powers to issue binding rulings in disputes relating to Wikipedia.
In late February 2007 The New Yorker added an editorial note to its article on Wikipedia stating that it had learned that Essjay was Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old college dropout from Kentucky with no advanced degrees and no teaching experience. Initially Jimmy Wales commented on the issue of Essjay's identity: "I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it." Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, responded to Wales on his Citizendium blog by calling Wales' initial reaction "utterly breathtaking, and ultimately tragic." Sanger said the controversy "reflects directly on the judgment and values of the management of Wikipedia."
Wales later issued a new statement saying he had not previously understood that "EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes." He added: "I have asked EssJay to resign his positions of trust within the [Wikipedia] community. Sanger responded the next day: "It seems Jimmy finds nothing wrong, nothing trust-violating, with the act itself of openly and falsely touting many advanced degrees on Wikipedia. But there most obviously is something wrong with it, and it’s just as disturbing for Wikipedia’s head to fail to see anything wrong with it."
On March 4, Essjay wrote on his user page that he was leaving Wikipedia, and he also resigned his position with Wikia. A subsequent article in the Louisville Courier-Journal suggested that the new résumé he had posted at his Wikia page was exaggerated. The March 19, 2007 issue of The New Yorker published a formal apology by Wales to the magazine and Stacy Schiff for Essjay's false statements.
Discussing the incident, the New York Times noted that the Wikipedia community had responded to the affair with "the fury of the crowd," and observed:
The Essjay episode underlines some of the perils of collaborative efforts like Wikipedia that rely on many contributors acting in good faith, often anonymously and through self-designated user names. But it also shows how the transparency of the Wikipedia process—all editing of entries is marked and saved—allows readers to react to suspected fraud.
The Essjay incident received extensive media coverage, including a national U.S. television broadcast on ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and a March 7, 2007 Associated Press story that was picked up by more than 100 media outlets listed in the Google news cache. The controversy has led to a proposal that users claiming to possess academic qualifications would have to provide evidence before citing them in Wikipedia content disputes. The proposal was not accepted.
In November 2006 a group of female long-term contributors to Wikipedia formed WikiChix, a group inspired by and modeled after the female-dominated LinuxChix, in response to their perception of how male-dominated Wikipedia has become, and how uncomfortable some women are when contributing in such an atmosphere. The existence of a mailing list limited exclusively to female contributors prompted some controversy; the list was subsequently moved from the Wikimedia Foundation's servers to Wikia, the separate wiki-hosting service.
Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not – in other words, the troll problem.
But more importantly, allowing anonymous editing generally induces a lack of authority, accountability, and healthy (or at least civil) interaction:
... Wikipedia's anonymity reduces the accountability that stimulates healthy exchanges. ... "When you put everybody in a system that is flat, where everybody can say yes or no, without any sense of authority, what you get is tribalism," ... "What has gone into the article creation is very often the result of this dysfunctional system. It presents itself with this aura of authority, whereas what goes on behind the scenes is anything but."
On many occasions, open (anonymous) editing is the source of many problems: Pettiness, idiocy, vulgarity, lack of accuracy, abuse (complete quotation).
A February 2008 article in SF Weekly details a journalist's futile attempts to track down the real identity of Wikipedia user Griot, who got involved in edit wars over the biography of Ralph Nader as well local politicians, and was eventually banned on Wikipedia for SOCK. The article draws the distinction between the press and Wikipedia:
Say what you will about the press: There is at least a measure of accountability in a newspaper that is rarely seen on Wikipedia. It's called a byline. I mean, I'm sure I've produced some less-than-brilliant work during the dozen or so years I've been a journalist. But at least I've had the guts to sign my name — my real name — to what I write.
"I guess I have the same feeling about Wikipedia and other citizen-generated sites [as I have] about the media: The more transparency the better" [...] "People should be able to find out who is producing the information."
Wikipedia itself considers editors anonymous in a much narrower sense of the word than the citations above, namely only those editors that do not have a registered account, and use an auto-generated IP-labeled account, are considered anonymous. To disambiguate the two notions on anonymity, in the remainder of this section we use the term unregistered for the narrower Wikipedia meaning.
Since unregistered editors reveal their IP addresses, which can be used by admins to register complaints with Internet service providers or to put "range blocks" in place. Admins may also choose not to block because they might exclude regular contributors who share the same IP. Knowledgeable computer users and hackers, though, are easily capable of finding ways around IP blocking. Many have suggested requiring users to register before editing articles, and on December 5, 2005 non-registered editors were prohibited from creating new articles. This does not address the larger problem of anonymity however.
Another complaint about Wikipedia focuses on the efforts of contributors with idiosyncratic beliefs, who push their point of view in an effort to dominate articles, especially controversial ones. This sometimes results in revert wars and pages being locked down. In response, an Arbitration Committee has been formed on the English Wikipedia that deals with the worst alleged offenders—though a conflict resolution strategy is actively encouraged before going to this extent. Also, to stop the continuous reverting of pages, Jimmy Wales introduced a "three-revert rule", whereby those users who reverse the effect of others' contributions to one article more than three times in a 24-hour period may be blocked.
Another edit war reported in mainstream press happened soon after the death of Kenneth Lay, the disgraced former CEO of Enron, who died due to a heart attack. Several editors to the encyclopedia added content to Lay's Wikipedia biography surmising that the death was in fact a suicide, well in advance of any official determination of cause of death. Such edits were reverted and re-inserted several times; eventually the article reported the cause of death as a heart attack. As of July 2007, there is no evidence to suggest that Lay's death was by other than natural causes. The edit history of the article was investigated by the press, and the Washington Post published a column on the subject.
A SF Weekly article commented on the stakes of edit wars:
Many an edit war may seem like a fight over nothing to the casual observer, but considering that according to its staff, the popular, multilingual Web site gets about 7 billion views per month, stakes can be high. An edit yields what millions of people read on the site on any particular topic.
A common complaint about Wikipedia concerns so-called "flame wars", or deliberate insults made by users to create a hostile environment. This concern has been acknowledged by Wikipedia; civility and "no personal attacks are official policies of the project, and the concept of "wikiquette" has been adopted by some users in response.
In an article in The Brooklyn Rail, former Wikipedia contributor David Shankbone contended that he had been harassed and stalked because of his work on Wikipedia, had received no support from the authorities or the Wikimedia Foundation, and only mixed support from the Wikipedia community. Shankbone wrote that "If you become a target on Wikipedia, do not expect a supportive community.
Wikipedia seeks not truth but consensus, and like an interminable political meeting the end result will be dominated by the loudest and most persistent voices.
In his article, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism (first published online by Edge: The Third Culture, 30 May 2006), computer scientist and digital theorist Jaron Lanier describes Wikipedia as a "hive mind" that is "for the most part stupid and boring," and asks, rhetorically, "why pay attention to it?" His thesis follows:
The problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.
Lanier goes on to point out the economic trend to reward entities that aggregate information, rather than those that actually generate content. In the absence of "new business models," the popular demand for content will be sated by mediocrity, thus reducing or even eliminating any monetary incentives for the production of new knowledge.
Lanier's opinions produced some strong disagreement. Internet consultant Clay Shirky noted that Wikipedia has many internal controls in place and is not a mere mass of unintelligent collective effort:
Neither proponents nor detractors of hive mind rhetoric have much interesting to say about Wikipedia itself, because both groups ignore the details... Wikipedia is best viewed as an engaged community that uses a large and growing number of regulatory mechanisms to manage a huge set of proposed edits... To take the specific case of Wikipedia, the Seigenthaler/Kennedy debacle catalyzed both soul-searching and new controls to address the problems exposed, and the controls included, inter alia, a greater focus on individual responsibility, the very factor “Digital Maoism” denies is at work.
However, critics charge that unless one is both familiar with Wikipedia and willing to spend a certain amount of time on Wikipedia these safeguards can and do fail.
In a 2005 study, Emigh and Herring note that there are not yet many formal studies of Wikipedia or its model, and suggest that Wikipedia achieves its results by social means—self-norming, a core of active users watching for problems, and expectations of encyclopedic text drawn from the wider culture.
In an article on Wikipedia conflicts, The Guardian noted criticism that administrators of the site, who have "special powers to lock down vulnerable articles from further editing, and temporarily block problem users from making changes to the site", sometimes abuse those powers to suppress legitimate editors. The article discussed "a backlash among some editors, who argue that blocking users compromises the supposedly open nature of the project, and the imbalance of power between users and administrators may even be a reason some users choose to vandalise in the first place."
'My vandalism started after an edit conflict over the Courier-Journal's sports and editorial coverage, where my - what I felt were - legitimate edits on the page for C-J criticism were removed and I was blasted,' he says. 'I have being vandalising Wikipedia and its user pages for months, mostly because seeing my vandalism or that of others was funny as hell... and to punish admins.
An article on The Register, dated 4 December 2007 and entitled "Secret mailing list rocks Wikipedia", discussed the use of a private mailing list to coordinate administrative actions. A follow-up article on 8 December 2007 specifically alleged that administrators were collaborating with critics of Overstock.com CEO Judd Bagley to "own" articles about him and his company.
In 2005, staff at the Encyclopædia Britannica said it did not feel threatened by Wikipedia. "The premise of Wikipedia is that continuous improvement will lead to perfection; that premise is completely unproven," the reference work's executive editor, Ted Pappas, told The Guardian.
Allegations that Wikipedia has been used as a platform for defamation gave rise to a joke in a 2007 episode of The Simpsons, where jailed hoodlum Snake says to his girlfriend, "Hey, baby. Listen carefully. Someone’s been editing my biography on Wikipedia. I want you to kill him.
An article in The Sun derided Wikipedia for including a list of "List of big-bust models and performers". Pretending to quote an unnamed "company source", the article concluded: "It’s every computer geek’s dream come true -- definitely one of Wikipedia’s breast, I mean best, assets".