Who's responsible for Wikipedia?
Two great cries have rung around the internet since the Seigenthaler scandal broke.
One is that Seigenthaler should have corrected the entry himself, and the other is that no source of authority can be trusted "definitively". That's a deliciously weaselly phrase we'll examine in a moment.
But both excuses seek, in the classic tradition of bad engineers blaming users for their own shoddy handiwork, to pass the responsibility onto Wikipedia's users.
The blame goes here, the blame goes there - the blame goes anywhere, except Wikipedia itself. If there's a problem - well, the user must be stupid!
Before we deal with each of these, and in all fairness, we must step over a small but important semantic whoopsy. If what we today know as "Wikipedia" had started life as something called, let's say - "Jimbo's Big Bag O'Trivia" - we doubt if it would be the problem it has become. Wikipedia is indeed, as its supporters claim, a phenomenal source of pop culture trivia. Maybe a "Big Bag O'Trivia" is all Jimbo ever wanted. Maybe not.
For sure a libel is a libel, but the outrage would have been far more muted if the Wikipedia project didn't make such grand claims for itself. The problem with this vanity exercise is one that it's largely created for itself. The public has a firm idea of what an "encyclopedia" is, and it's a place where information can generally be trusted, or at least slightly more trusted than what a labyrinthine, mysterious bureaucracy can agree upon, and surely more trustworthy than a piece of spontaneous graffiti - and Wikipedia is a king-sized cocktail of the two.
Secondly, Wikipedia's proliferation owes much to the fact that we're currently in a temporary, but very familiar blip in history - one we've been in many times before. Wikipedia has sprung up to fill a temporary void. Copyright law exists in a permanent state of tension, and there's a latency between a new technology being invented and compensation mechanisms being agreed upon that spread that valuable, copyrighted material far and wide.
So I'm very privileged right now, as a member of the San Francisco public library, to be able to tap into expensive databases I couldn't otherwise afford. In ten years time, these "member's societies" will be the norm, and most of us won't even realize we're members. The good stuff will just come out of a computer network.
For now, however, it's the chasm between Wikipedia's rude claim to be an "encyclopedia", and the banal reality of trashy, badly written trivia that causes so many people to be upset about it.
It's an unwarranted assumption of authority.
Now back to Seigenthaler, and let's address each of these pathetic defenses in turn.