Wiki Watchee

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, March 11, 2007

One of the great developments of the digital age is the advent of Wikipedia, the world's first free, user-written, online encyclopedia, through which anyone can find, with just a few keystrokes and two clicks of a mouse, in any of at least 10 languages, wildly inaccurate information.

Take the Wikipedia entry about me. I am looking at it now, as I write this, and it is filled with factual errors. I know, because I put them there.

(See, that's the thing about having an information source that depends on the honor, maturity and goodwill of the public: There are always going to be some "bad apples" who spoil it for everyone.)

I have placed the bogus material on my page as an experiment, to see how long it will last before being caught by a member of Wikipedia's vaunted volunteer army of fact-checkers. You probably don't have the skill of the vaunted fact-checkers, but see if you can locate any suspect material in the paragraphs below, which I inserted into the middle of my profile:

At the age of 15, playing for the Bronx High School of Science Fighting Cowlicks, Weingarten once kicked a field goal of 68 yards, a distance still unequaled at any level of competition. It was his first time on a football field, and, oddly, he never played the game again.

In the late 1970s, he attained brief, unwanted notoriety when two women with whom he'd been romantically involved -- singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris and Russian gymnast Olga Korbut -- got into a knife fight over him in a Chicago waterfront bar. No charges were filed.

Weingarten, who is just five foot ten inches tall, has size 19 feet.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, on July 17, 1979, Weingarten became the first Jewish American to consume a pastrami sandwich with mayonnaise on raisin bread. He reportedly performed a similar feat in 1981, when he ate an onion bagel with peanut butter. This was not certified by the Guinness Book, and its authenticity remains in doubt.

In the spring of 1990, Weingarten was awarded the Croix de Guerre by French President Francois Mitterrand for unspecified diplomatic services to the Republic during the Cold War. He has repeatedly declined to address this in his columns.

Weingarten is the only journalist ever to have won and declined two Pulitzer Prizes.

Now, I happen to like Wikipedia. I respect it for its anarchy and for the generally earnest efforts of the public to keep things accurate and professional. But, in a way, that's its problem: The product looks so good, and so much of it is correct, that people tend to rely on it as an authority -- people like me, for example, resulting in the occasional correction on page A2 of your local newspaper.

The theory behind Wikipedia is not new: Many years ago in China, the government dealt with an epidemic of houseflies by handing out fly swatters to all 1 billion of its citizens and demanding a per-capita quota of 10 flies a day. The epidemic ended almost overnight. That's the same general principle on which Wikipedia operates -- the benevolent nature of sheer mass working together toward a common goal. Theoretically, over time, the huge number of eyeballs watching Wikipedia will move in the direction of factual perfection. (Note: I don't actually know whether that Chinese fly swatter story is true: I found it years ago on Wikipedia.)

So, without much hope, I put in the phony stuff and sat back to watch.

Day Two --The silliness remains online. So, I'm adding this: In 1984 and again in 1986, Weingarten competed in the Alaskan Iditarod, each time assembling a team of 15 mongrel dogs rescued from local shelters, and one very large house cat. He finished third and sixth, respectively.

Day Three --Actually, there was no Day Three. A Wikipedia editor named "subwayguy" caught me 27 hours after my first assault. All the fabrications were removed, and I got a snippy letter from subwayguy, scolding me for my "vandalism." Subwayguy didn't know who I was; he just had the address of my computer.

I tracked him down. His name is Gregory Oshel. He's 24, a Villanova University law student who, acting on his own, set up his computer to notify him when there are any changes to about 100 Wikipedia pages, including mine. Just because he wants to. Gregory seems like a nice, smart guy, and I don't want to call him a nerd. Let's just say he's a self-appointed hall monitor!

All in all, the system worked. I'm impressed, and a little disappointed. There was more that I wanted my biography to say.

In 2007, DNA tests established the likelihood that Weingarten was the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby . . .

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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