Wikipedia and the Credibility of Online Information
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Wikipedia and the Credibility of Online Information
By Sam Vaknin
Author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited"
The Wikipedia was touted as the greatest reference work in history.
A collaborative effort of contributors and editors across time and
space, it bloated into hundreds of thousands of articles on subjects
both deserving and risible. Anyone with a connection to the Internet
and a browser can edit the Wikipedia, regardless of his or her
qualifications to do so.
Events in 2005-6 exposed the underbelly and weaknesses of this
mammoth enterprise. Entries are routinely vandalized, libel and
falsities often find their way into existing articles as a way to
settle scores, manipulate public opinion, or express outrage.
The prestigious magazine "Nature" studied Wikipedia articles on the
sciences and found them similar in quality to peer reviewed and
edited encyclopedias. Indeed, the problems cluster around the
entries that deal with the softer edges of the human experience
(where everyone feels qualified to comment and edit): the
social "sciences", the humanities, arts and entertainment, politics,
current affairs, celebrities, and the like. It is there that "edit
wars" and thrashing are most ripe. The result is that nigh close to
90% of the Wikipedia contain highly dubious material and attract the
least qualified "experts" and "editors".
This seems to prove the point that the gaining and preservation of
knowledge should not be subjected to a democratic process (or, as in
the Wikipedia's case, mob rule). As the promoters of "intelligent
design" are finding out, what we learn cannot and must not be
decided by vocal protests and voting.
The acquisition of expertise and its propagation across the
generations by means of works of reference should remain an elitist
endeavor. The mechanisms of peer-review and editorial board are far
from fail-proof. But they do guarantee a modicum of accuracy and
objectivity which the Wikipedia gravely fails to do.
There are examples of online encyclopedias that actually adhere to
basic principles: their authors and editors are qualified to write
about the topics they have chosen or have been assigned, and the
entries are largely accurate and unbiased. The Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy (SEP) is one example. The Open Site Encyclopedia is a
hybrid, a cross between the Wikipedia and the SEP models. Still,
they haven't been able to attain the stature of the likes of the
Encyclopedia Britannica or even the Encarta.
But there is a larger issue at stake. Is the Internet a reliable and
credible source of information?
People are conditioned to trust written words, not to mention
images. "I read it in the paper" or "As seen on TV" are worn out but
still effective clichés. The Internet combines both the written and
the seen. It is both a textual and a visual (and audio) medium. Do
people trust Internet content? Is the incredible Internet - credible?
In the "brick and mortar" world, credibility is associated with
brands. A brand, in effect, guarantees the quality and
specifications of a product (think McDonald's hamburgers), its
performance (think Palm), level of service and commitment to
customer care (Amazon), variety, or price (Wal-Mart). Brands are
sustained and enhanced by advertising campaigns. The content or
sales pitch of specific ads are often less important than the
message conveyed by the very existence of a campaign: "This company
is rich enough (read: stable, reliable, trustworthy, here to stay)
to spend millions on advertising."
The Internet has very few brands (Yahoo!, Amazon) - and some of them
are tarnished. Some "old media" brands have entered the fray (Barnes
and Noble, The Wall Street Journal, the Britannica) - hitherto
without much success. The overwhelming bulk of Web content is
created or disseminated by small time entrepreneurs and monomaniacs.
So, how does one establish or acquire credibility in such a diffuse
and anarchic medium?
Enter Stanford University's "Web Credibility Project".
They define themselves thus:
"Our goal is to understand what leads people to believe what they
find on the Web. We hope this knowledge will enhance Web site design
and promote future research on Web credibility. As part of this
ongoing project we are:
a.. Performing quantitative research on Web credibility.
b.. Collecting all public information on Web credibility.
c.. Acting as a clearinghouse for this information.
d.. Facilitating research and discussion about Web credibility.
e.. Helping designers create credible Web sites."
Examples of current projects:
Timeliness: How does having out-of-date content affect the
credibility of a Web site?
Interaction: How does having a personalized interaction with a
Web site affect its credibility?
Negative Content: How does displaying negative content
associated with a branded web site affect the credibility of the
It is useful to confine ourselves to this definition of trust:
"The subjective belief, perception, or conviction that information
provided is true, factual, and objective, and that commitments
undertaken, explicitly, or implicitly, will be honored fully and in
a timely manner."
Such perception, belief, or conviction are based on:
a.. Past experience in general (with spam, with merchants, or
providers, with a similar product category, with the same type of
content, etc.) and personal proclivity to trust or to distrust.
a.. Experience with the specific merchant or provider (whether
personal or gleaned from other people's feedback - reviews,
complaints, and opinions).
There is little that a merchant can do about the former. The latter
is, expectedly, influenced by:
a.. Professionalism (as evident in Web site design, e-commerce
facilities, user-friendliness, navigability, links to other relevant
Web pages, links from other Web sites, ease and speed of download,
updated content, proofreading, domain name which matches the
company's name, availability, multilingualism, etc.);
a.. Trustworthiness (lack of bias, good intentions, truthfulness,
thoroughness, objectivity, expertise and author credentials,
knowledgeable sources and treatment, citations and bibliography),
and what the authors of the research call "Real World Feel"
(physical address, phone/fax numbers, non-Web e-mail address, photos
of facilities and staff, audio recording, ownership by a not for
profit organization, URL ending with ORG);
a.. Commercial Web sites are less trusted. Cluttered ads, paid
subscriptions, e-commerce enabled forms - all reduce the site's
credibility! This is especially true if the entire site is a one,
big ad and when it is hard to distinguish ads from content;
a.. Track record (how veteran is the merchant, past financial
performance, credit history, brand name recognition, lists of
a.. Selection (how many products are carried, how often is
inventory refreshed, etc.);
a.. Advertising (is the company's business sufficiently lucrative
to support a campaign?);
a.. Service (good service indicates a reassuring readiness to
sacrifice the bottom line to cater to the customer's legitimate
concerns, feedback forms, live support, etc.);
a.. Feedback from other users (opinions, reviews, comments, FAQs,
support groups, etc.);
a.. Site rating and certification by trustworthy agencies (like
the Better Business Bureau - BBB, VeriSign, TRUSTe) - or awards won
(from credible and reputable organizations). Links from other, well-
known and believable Web sites.
The Credibility Web discovered that trust in e-commerce is also
influenced by idiosyncratic factors. Certain domain names (org) are
more trusted than others (com). Too many ads, broken links, typos,
outdated or old content - all diminish trust. In the absence of
proven markers and behavioral guidelines, people seem to resort to
extrapolation ("if they can't maintain their own Web site...") and
stereotypes (e.g., NGO's are more trustworthy than corporations).
As Web sites proliferate (Google indexes well over 3 billion now)
and Web authoring becomes a routine task - the noise to signal ratio
of garbage to useful information is bound to deteriorate. Search
engines already incorporate crude measures of credibility in their
rankings (e.g., the number of links from external Web sites). But,
to remain useful, search engines (and Web directories) would do well
to rate Web content more comprehensively and thoroughly. They should
rank Web sites by authoritativeness, reliability, and objectivity,
Research shows that 75% of all respondents resort to the Internet as
a primary information provider. The inundation of irrelevant
material caused most surfers to confine their surfing to 10 Web
sites (the equivalent of "anchors" in shopping malls) which they
deem reliable, timely, accurate, objective, authoritative, and
credible. The rest of the Internet gets the leftovers. This
worrying trend can be reversed only through the emergence of
independent and commercially-viable rating agencies. Web sites (at
least the business ones) should be willing to pay for credible
rating to enhance their stickiness and attract
monetizable "eyeballs". In the absence of such third party
accreditation, the Internet risks both irrelevance and disrepute.
AUTHOR BIO (must be included with the article)
Sam Vaknin ( samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant
Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West
Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Global Politician,
Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and eBookWeb, a
United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent, and
the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in
The Open Directory and Suite101.
Until recently, he served as the Economic Advisor to the Government
Visit Sam's Web site at samvak.tripod.com