Saturday, February 24, 2007

Anna, Robert and Jimmy

The recent, sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith produced a telling exchange of viewpoints last week, when National Public Radio's Robert Siegel interviewed Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

The issue at hand was speculation that Wikipedia had beaten traditional journalistic outlets to the story about Smith's passing. An anonymous editor had promptly posted the time of her death on her biography page, supposedly before any other news source. Wales corrected the rumor, claiming that the source had, in fact, been an announcement on CBS.

I enjoy Siegel's calm equanimity on All Things Considered in the afternoon, even if his delivery exemplifies what Camille Paglia once called the "repressed mellifluousness of National Public Radio." So it was especially interesting to hear him growing a bit nettled over Wikipedia's reported coup, and over the encyclopedia’s editorial policies. Transcripts are available from NPR and on LexisNexis, but they don't convey the edginess of his conversation with Wales. For that, you need to listen to the audio on NPR's site.

Siegel suggested that Wikipedia had based its report on a "slimmer basis for confirmation" than a news organization would have used, but Wales countered that it was "pretty much exactly the same" in that Wikipedia had acted on "a citation to what was being reported at another outlet." Siegel questioned the "hierarchy of editors" who had made the decision to remove the story from the site for a short time. Wales replied that Wikipedia instead acts through a "social hierarchy" of "experienced editors," and then admitted that by "experienced" he meant anyone with an account over four days old.

Siegel called four days a "pretty low bar." The interview maintained a veneer of civility, but Siegel attempted to cast the episode as a case of reckless amateur journalism, downplaying Wales' point that Wikipedia had simply posted information that had been already been broadcast by a major news organization, CBS.

The greater significance of this episode is the speed and adaptability of Wikipedia's social network in catching and disseminating news. Siegel groused, politely, about the absence of a "hierarchy," pointing out that the site's editors were "members of an online community" rather than professionals meeting together in a room somewhere. Wales' reply was a simple "Exactly!" What Siegel addressed as a flaw, Wales clearly recognized as Wikipedia's distinct advantage.

It was especially interesting that Siegel didn't react to Wales' referring to CBS as "another outlet." This raises an interesting question. Is Wikipedia an encyclopedia, or a news outlet? Or are the distinctions between those two functions beginning to blur?

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