Friday, 23 March 2007

How do they use us? Let me count the ways

A recent blog post from Steven Aftergood, analyzing the use of Wikipedia by the United States Government in certain intelligence products, has been attracting some attention recently, with the responses ranging from amused to angry. Aftergood approved of the use of Wikipedia "and other unorthodox sources" by the intelligence community, but gave the standard caveat on the inherent unreliability of some content:

"The relatively new attentiveness of U.S. intelligence agencies to Wikipedia and other unorthodox sources (including seems like a healthy development. Of course, like any source and moreso than some, Wikipedia cannot be used uncritically.

Last December, according to another OSC [Open Source Center] report, a participant in an online jihadist forum posted a message entitled 'Why Don't We Invade Wikipedia?' in which 'he called on other participants to consider writing articles and adding items to the online Wikipedia encyclopedia.... and in this way, and through an Islamic lobby, apply pressure on the encyclopedia's material.' "

The references to Wikipedia content identified by Aftergood don't actually amount to much, but they do provide an insight into the manner in which content is used.

In one instance that Aftergood identifies, Wikipedia was used as a source for the names of two children of a terror suspect, although the existence of the children was already known. This is an example of what seems to me to be one of the main types of use of Wikipedia as a source in "serious" contexts: using the content as "flavour", to add something to, or fill in gaps in, existing information. Another example is one of the earliest uses of Wikipedia as a press source, a 2003 Daily Telegraph article which touches on the Suez crisis, and then offers a link to the Wikipedia article on the crisis for readers unfamiliar with the subject to learn about it.

Another significant use in such contexts is to demonstrate the prevalence of an idea or a certain piece of knowledge in mainstream society or culture. A good example of this is the first use of Wikipedia as a source by a court, the use of the article "explorer" on the German Wikipedia by the German federal patent court (the Bundespatentgericht), in a trademark case, to show how the word has come to enter the German language. This is a little disturbing, given that part of the ideological underpinning of the project is that it shouldn't change existing thought on a topic, merely summarise the existing state of affairs, but fortunately it seems that this type of use is relatively rare.

A third category of use, one which I find particularly interesting, is the use of Wikipedia content ahead of other potentially available sources for the particular clarity or roundedness of the content. One example is the Federal Court of Australia's reference to the article "reality television" in a 2005 case to obtain a broad definition of reality TV. Another example is Australian politician Danna Vale's use of the English Wikipedia article on totalitarianism in a 2005 speech to parliament; the concept of totalitarianism was (probably) well known and understood to all present, but Vale turned to Wikipedia for a good expression of certain aspects of the concept. Yet another is the California Court of Appeal's reference to no less than eleven Wikipedia articles in its decision in Apple v Does. Indeed, this category of use seems to be very common among the instances of courts referencing Wikipedia (that is, when they're not criticising counsel for referencing Wikipedia).

I say that this last type of use is particularly interesting because it is probably closest to the main intended use of Wikipedia content: as a starting point, as a source that someone turns to first to get a quick understanding of the basics of a topic, and to obtain a starting point for further investigation. In short, it's using Wikipedia as an encyclopaedia.

There has been plenty of work so far in amassing lists of instances of Wikipedia being used as a source in various different settings. These lists stand to be an excellent resource for anyone researching the impact of Wikipedia today in terms of how it is used, and I for one would be very interested in seeing some research in this area. Understanding how Wikipedia is used, particularly how it is used in various contexts - such as in the press, in academia or in the courts - will be crucial for guiding the future direction of the project.


David Gerard said...

I eagerly await the leaked intelligence report with "BUSH IS GAY LOLOLOLOLOLOL" in the middle.

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