Working at the campus library till late last night, I came home just in time to watch Stephen Colbert on his popular Colbert Report segment, “The Wørd”.
Interestingly, the word of the day was Wikiality.
Seeing where Stephen was going, I called my neighborhood pundit about it…
Me: “Hey, you watching this…?”
MrBig: “Yeah, Colbert’s talking about Wikipedia”
Me: “Wikiality = Wiki + Reality… sounds so slick. We should check Wikipedia now. I bet everyone’s quoting him, and messing with the population of the African elephants. You should post something on Wikiality man…”.
MrBig: “Nah, I’ve never done this… why don’t you do it?”
Me: “I’m making a late dinner… why don’t you see what others are saying?”
MrBig: “Wow, his quotes are already showing up…”
MrBig: “I’ll call you back… I wanna watch this.”
Due to the public nature of Wikipedia’s editorial, this open encyclopedia is a literal manifestation of Colbert’s notion that any assertion can become fact if enough of the site’s users agreed with it. At least we think it is… earlier this year it was found that U.S. politicians were misrepresentated on Wikipedia, and since then several editorial controls were put into place, but more on that later.
To prove his point, he encouraged viewers to edit entries about elephants by saying that the population of elephants in the world has tripled in the last six months (notably African ones). Information manipulation, though often not immediately obvious in real life, is equally pervasive everywhere (e.g. politics). While many might think that he was doing more harm than good to Wikipedia, one has to take a step back to see the grand scale of things.
Just as how other researchers have done (pointing to my advisor), Colbert is actually trying to do us a favor by pushing the system on its edge. By enacting a subversive play on explicit democracy and then misrepresentating knowledge, we should simply enjoy this as a public exhibition which questions how truth is
really sometimes produced.
ASIDE: With Wikimania 2006 approaching, Colbert’s antics are quite timely. By this morning, a Wikipedia admin named Tawker began locking down the vandalized pages. He also blocked the user account named “Stephencolbert“. If you read Tawker’s blog, he’s trying to ask for a mention on the show for being the guy that blocks Stephen Colbert. I don’t know Tawker, but I’d give you a wag of my index finger instead.
ASIDE 2: For all the talk on what was being editing (vandalized), scroll to the bottom of Wikipedia’s discussion page for Stephen Colbert.
ASIDE 3: Prof. Alex Halavais and doctoral student Derek Lackaff recently shared their Wikipedia research on the problem where some topics, such as the fictional Harry Potter universe, may be covered in extraordinary detail (over 300 articles), while other topics, such as geriatrics, are addressed by only a handful of entries (14 articles).