Friday, January 21, 2005

The Pros and Cons of Anonymity

During the post-lunch group discussion, David Sifry of Technorati and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia offered some interesting comments on the effect of anonymous authors on content reliability.

"The problem with anonymity is the lack of accountability," Sifry said. Anonymous blogging can be incredibly powerful, he continued, but if you remove the context - "Hi, I'm David Sifry.. and I'm a real person" - you risk adding a layer of doubt for the readers. (I mean, if journalists are discouraged from using anonymous sources, should we be surprised if readers are less trusting of anonymous bloggers?)

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia responded by describing the culture of Wikipedians -- Internet users who contribute content to Wikipedia. "There is virtually no disclosure of who people are," he said of Wikipedians. "It's not that they're anonymous; it's that no one really cares. When you write for a wiki, if you want your writing to survive, you have to write in a very neutral manner. " So over time, he said, authors develop credibility because of their content's ability to survive the wiki process. "With the wiki method, there's a collaborative review process," he concluded.

This, I think, is Wikipedia's strength and weakness. (wikiness?) It's an obvious strength that anyone can go to Wikipedia and publish or edit an entry. I personally love being a Wikipedian. But like I said in my recent podcast on Wikipedia, the lack of information about a Wikipedian's background and expertise causes a large segment of the population to not want to consider the site as a trusted resource. That's why so many teachers and librarians don't want their students using it as a source.

While it may be true that certain Wikipedia entries are well-vetted, lots of them aren't, so the "collaborative review process" around those entries is nonexistent. That's why I think Wikipedia needs to reach out to more experts, particularly in non-technical subjects, and encourage them to contribute. They should also encourage people to post information about their qualifications on a particular subject, so readers of Wikipedia can make an informed decision as to whether they consider a particular entry as reliable or not.


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