Monday, January 30, 2012

Surprising lessons from Wikipedia

I set out the other day to teach my 11-year-old daughter something about Wikipedia and ended up learning a few things myself.

Wikipedia is a familiar stop for a lot of kids, including mine, when they need information for a school project or report. It's filled with just the sort of details names, dates, places that a student needs.

But I wanted to demonstrate to my daughter that she should use caution in using Wikipedia, since anyone can edit the material there. We came up with the idea of adding the phrase "Cheese was invented in Antarctica" to Wikipedia and seeing how long it stayed there until someone corrected it.

I opened a Wikipedia account it's simple; you don't even need to give an email address and proceeded to the website's entry on "Cheese." But right away, there was a problem.  When I tried to add our bogus sentence, Wikipedia told me that the cheese article is "semi-protected and can be edited only by established users."

To become an "established user," I would have to be a member for four days and make 10 edits to articles. This isn't a huge bar, clearly, but it does block someone from joining and immediately making changes to articles that are deemed important enough to have "semi-protected" status.

Not to be denied, we shifted to the Wikipedia entry on "History of Cheese." This article turned out not to be protected, so I went in, deleted one sentence, then replaced it with "Cheese was invented in Antarctica." Done.

I then told my daughter that we would check back later to see if anyone had changed our work. I fully expected that it would take hours, perhaps days, before anything happened.  But about 45 minutes later, my daughter discovered that it had already been changed back. 

What had happened?  Looking closer, I found a message from Wikipedia:

"Hello, and welcome to Wikipedia. Everyone is welcome to make constructive contributions to Wikipedia, but at least one of your recent edits, such as the one you made to History of cheese, did not appear to be constructive and has been automatically reverted (undone) by an automated computer program called ClueBot NG."

I was amazed. A computer had detected our bogus edit and stopped it. How did it know? Was the fact that I was a new user a factor?  Was the program an expert on cheese?

I'm sure it's still possible, if you're determined, to make bogus changes in Wikipedia, but it's definitely not as easy as I thought. The limitations I discovered are pretty reassuring and give greater credibility to Wikipedia.

No comments:

Post a Comment