Magazine article Newsweek International

Dawn of the Amateurs; A Flap over Fraud on Wikipedia Raises Questions about the Reliability of Information in the Age of 'You' Media

Magazine article Newsweek International

Dawn of the Amateurs; A Flap over Fraud on Wikipedia Raises Questions about the Reliability of Information in the Age of 'You' Media

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

Andrew Keen is not surprised at the latest twist in the ongoing saga of Wikipedia. In his view, the entire Internet movement involving "collective intelligence," "citizen journalism" and "the wisdom of crowds" is a cultural meltdown, an instance of barbarians at civilization's gates. He considers Wikipedia, the popular Internet-based encyclopedia written and vetted by anyone who cares to contribute, as no more reliable than the output of a million monkeys banging away at their typewriters, and says as much in his upcoming poison-pen letter to Web 2.0, "The Cult of the Amateur" (due from Currency/Doubleday in June).

So imagine Keen's delight in learning about an adjustment to last summer's New Yorker article about Wikipedia. The article's author prominently cited a person identified as "Essjay," described as "a tenured professor of religion ... who holds a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law." Essjay had contributed to more than 16,000 Wikipedia entries, and often invoked his credentials to argue for changes in various articles. But as The New Yorker abashedly informed its readers some months after the story appeared, Essjay was not a religion professor but a 24-year-old college dropout. What's more, Wikipedia's cofounder Jimmy Wales said, "I don't really have a problem with it." (Wales subsequently recognized that fraudulent misrepresentation is not a great idea, and removed Essjay from his position of trust at Wikipedia.)

The Essjay incident fits Keen's critique of the democratization of the digital world so neatly that "he could have been invented by me," says the former entrepreneur turned polemicist. In Keen's view, sites like Wikipedia, along with blogs, YouTube and iTunes, are rapidly eroding our legacy of expert guidance in favor of a "dictatorship of idiots." Reliable sources of information (like Encyclopaedia Britannica, your local newspaper and even your beloved news-weekly magazine) are under siege from an explosion of self-appointed writers, broadcasters and filmmakers whose collective output, charges Keen, is garbage. …

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