BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Thursday morning Americans woke to the news that while they were sleeping London was under attack. By late morning, reports detailed multiple blasts that resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of wounded. While cable news anchors endlessly repeated themselves, Wikipedia was quickly assembling a definitive webpage title "7 July 2005, London Bombings." Thorough and well organized, the page included the who, what, when, where of the story, as well as the official statements from world leaders, as well as practical information like what public transportation was closed, all with hypertext links to still more information. But how did it all get there so fast? And what is Wikipedia anyway? Clay Shirky has the answers. He teaches in the Interactive Communications Program at NYU and blogs regularly on social software. Wikipedia is one of his frequent topics, and he joins us once again. Clay, welcome back to OTM.
CLAY SHIRKY: Thanks so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Review for us please, just what is a wiki, in the first place
CLAY SHIRKY: A wiki is a group-created website. The idea is that every page on the website is editable by any of the users. So at the bottom of every page there's a little button that says Edit This Page. You can add alter, move, delete. And then there's another button that says Now Re-Publish This to the Wiki. When you click that second button, the page is updated to reflect your changes. But your changes are then part of the most current version of the page, which is then editable by still other users.
BOB GARFIELD: And Wikipedia itself, what's its history?
CLAY SHIRKY: Someone, a group of someone set out to do an online encyclopedia called Newpedia. And so they set out to do a well-vetted encyclopedia with lots of editing and lots of oversight. And it was going very slowly. So at some point someone said why don't we throw up one of these wiki things and just create a bunch of articles, and then we can see if we can pull those articles over into Newpedia. So Wikipedia was started as a kind of sideline experiment to Newpedia. Well, Newpedia continued to stagnate. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia took off. And the big surprise was that when you get many eyes on the problem you could actually solve that problem much faster than if you have a sub-class of people responsible for taking care of it.
BOB GARFIELD: You mean like experts.
CLAY SHIRKY: Like experts (LAUGHS), for example. But the thing is experts certainly participate in the editing of the Wikipedia. It's not that they're excluded, it's that people who haven't been formally nominated as experts also aren't excluded. The Wikipedia takes on the label of an encyclopedia, but actually the ability for an article to come into being in real time out of nothing, as has happened with the London bombings, is something that no other encyclopedia is capable of. It's a capability that doesn't at all fit into the metaphor of an encyclopedia and yet, as you noted earlier, very high quality, highly updated. And it mixes authoritative statements, external links and really actionable information for the people on the ground in London who are still struggling to deal with this.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay but one of the structural problems of Wikipedia is that there's no guarantee that someone adding to existing material actually knows what he's talking about. Tell me how you defeat the problem of just bad information in such rapidly developing events as the London bombing.
CLAY SHIRKY: The answer for all wikis is what makes a wiki good is not the technology but the community. A wiki in the hands of a healthy community has essentially social antibodies. When content is reflected to reflect something that's either inaccurate or intentionally misleading, if there are people watching those pages they can either edit the changes or all wikis contain a history function. So if you go in and deface a page on Wikipedia with information that I know to be wrong, I can simply say roll back to the last version of this page before you came in and wrecked it.
BOB GARFIELD: Understood. But isn't that scant consolation, Clay, for those who have happened to have clicked on Wikipedia before the vandalism has been erased?
CLAY SHIRKY: It would be if the vandalism lasted a long time. There was actually a very interesting study done up at IBM in Cambridge around a project called History Flow that looked at the history of vandalism for highly contentious subjects on the Wikipedia, whether it was abortion or Islam or Microsoft, or any topic that got some group exorcised. And what they found was that vandalism tended to last less than two minutes. People get e-mailed when a page is changed, so it's not passive monitoring. There's highly active monitoring around page changes, particularly for contentious pages, so that the vandalism is found and undone very quickly.
BOB GARFIELD: How does a Wikipedia entry deal with the simple disagreement between two non-vandals who simply have a different point of view or a different, you know, set of apparent facts on a given subject?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Wikipedia has adopted something called the neutral point of view as its goal, which is to say the only material that should go into a Wikipedia article is the material that two people with different points of view can agree to be true. It tends towards a very fact-based description of subjects. Every page has a mirror page called the talk page where conversations about what should and shouldn't go into a wiki page move to. So if you and I were to start an edit war, as they're called, where you're making changes and I'm making changes back, the official Wikipedia answer is that we should move that conversation to the talk page, hammer out our disagreements, and add the resulting material back, so that Wikipedia pages, as their examined, tend toward this neutral point of view.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to get back to the issue of expertise and authoritativeness.
CLAY SHIRKY: Mmm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: Encyclopedias, for example, let's say the Encyclopedia Britannica, is created by a handful of editors and maybe several hundred expert sources, or maybe it's several thousand, but in any case, a relatively small finite number. The people in the encyclopedia business, I understand, tend to sniff at the wiki process as being the product of the mere hoi polloi.
CLAY SHIRKY: Right, right. The question around old versus new--if there's a real revolution afoot, the new product doesn't win because it's better at what the old product does. The new product wins because it does things the old product simply can't do. Where is the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the London bombings?
BOB GARFIELD: I think I get what you're saying. Arguing over whether Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica is a superior encyclopedia is missing the point entirely. Maybe the question should be is Wikipedia the replacement for all traditional media on breaking news.
CLAY SHIRKY: Well, that's actually one of the really interesting questions here. The first time this pattern showed up on Wikipedia was after the December 26th tsunami when suddenly it became a site for exactly the pattern we're seeing with the London blasts, which is here's the basic information, here's what we know to date, here are some pointers to hotlines, in that case, for missing loved ones and so forth. Whenever there's a really major disaster but no immediate news, the people on cable are often vamping because they have to keep repeating the basic story on the chance that someone has just tuned in, even in the absence of any new information. Wikipedia solves that problem, while at the same having a symbiotic relationship with those news analysts because it points people to the written versions of stories at a certain point in time. So I don't think it replaces them, but I do think it lowers the need for those outlets to have to just continually repeat the basic story in the absence of facts because the Wikipedia is a better place to handle that period of the breaking news.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Clay. Well, once again, thanks very much.
CLAY SHIRKY: Not at all. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Communications Department at NYU, and writes about the Internet on his site, shirky.com. (MUSIC)