You're the proverbial alien on our planet, fresh off the UFO. You found a job--congratulations!--and you've just received your first paycheck. On the stub, you notice that something, or someone, named "FICA" is skimming 6 percent off the top. "Oh, that's Social Security," your new colleagues tell you. But what's that?
You turn to Google, which refers you to Wikipedia--the free online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit" and that increasingly serves as our culture's reference source of first resort. There, you learn that Social Security is "a social insurance program" that is "funded through dedicated payroll taxes." In 2004, it "paid out almost $500 billion in benefits." It is, "by dollars paid ... the largest government program in the world and the single greatest expenditure in the federal budget."
The "Social Security (United States)" Wikipedia entry includes the long history of opposition to Social Security, from the 1930s to the present, a litany of philosophical criticisms of the program (it "discriminates against the poor," it's a Ponzi scheme, it might be unconstitutional), and dire bottom-line budget analyses that suggest it will run out of money by 2018, 2041, or 2052. Finally, you've got it figured out: The peculiar tax you're paying funds an 80-year-long argument about the role of government.
Of course, Wikipedia doesn't really say that. But its article does a lousy job of telling you what that money actually pays for, including most of the positive side of the ledger--you know, the stuff about helping people.
Social Security scholar Eric Kingson, professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-director of the organization Strengthen Social Security, reviewed the article for me, subsection by subsection, with mounting exasperation. The factual details weren't erroneous, for the most part, but the overall portrait they created was badly skewed.
"There's absolutely no discussion of what the purpose of social insurance is, of how it's a form of protecting against lost wages--it's one way societies deal with risks that families and individuals face," he said. Wikipedia says virtually nothing about the system's role as a safety net, its baseline protections against poverty for the elderly and the disabled, its part in shoring up the battered foundations of the American middle class, or its defined-benefit stability as a bulwark against the violent oscillations of market-based retirement piggy banks.
This is a problem--not just for Social Security's advocates but for Wikipedia itself, which has an extensive corpus of customs and practices intended to root out individual bias. But there just may be something we can do about it.
One of Wikipedia's guiding principles is the idea of "neutral point of view," or NPOV. Under the rule of NPOV, contributors should not inject opinions into Wikipedia articles. Even more, they should not insert anything unless it is verifiable by some putatively reliable third-party source (usually media reports or acknowledged experts).
The encyclopedia has several other foundational tenets: "assume good faith," "don't bite the newbies," and, as an exhortation to people who complain about an article's deficiencies, "SOFIXIT." Wikipedians also espouse the practice of "writing for the enemy"--which author Joseph Reagle defines in his book about Wikipedia, Good Faith Collaboration, as "the process of explaining another person's point of view as clearly and fairly as you can."
"The intent," Reagle continues, "is to satisfy the adherents and advocates of that POV that you understand their claims and arguments." These catchphrases are as much about promoting the health of Wikipedia's community of online collaborators as they are about improving the quality of its content.
Even most of Wikipedia's ardent critics will admit that the project has succeeded in corralling the energies of an impressive-sized crowd and directing it toward an estimable goal--providing "free access to the sum of all human knowledge. …