Cal-Tech computer science student Virgil Griffith recently developed a tool called WikiScanner to keep track, by IP address, of which major corporations, government agencies, and political parties are editing Wikipedia entries. (A similar page on Reddit lists some of the edits.)

Most of the edits are whitewashes, like Wal-Mart removing references to its outsourcing to China and the NFL removing criticism of their NFL Network.

The Associated Press reports that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is a fan of the scanner, and I am too.

For months now, blog posts and essays have been shooting back and forth across the Web decrying the Wikipedia’s lack of oversight or, more accurately, limited oversight. There are no editors whose job is to strictly monitor certain areas of expertise. There are administrators and self-appointed guardians to look over as many new edits and new pages as they can, but the system is not perfect.

Amid that confusion, errors found a way into articles. That’s understandable. Errors will always find their way into everything because no researcher is perfect. However, other things found their way in too, like the aforementioned whitewashing and outright personal/corporate attacks. Some pundits began using the Wikipedia as a weapon of self-promotion and misinformation.

Without oversight, without an ombudsman to stand in for the public’s interest in Wikipedia, the site has fallen somewhat in professionals’ estimations. Many college professors, myself included when I taught composition, excluded the Wikipedia from our classes. As I told my students: it’s a good place to start researching, but you may not cite it in your papers. It just wasn’t trustworthy enough to depend on.

Will this change Wikipedia overnight? No. Will it change it in the long run? No. In all likelihood, unless Griffith does something to promote this tool and turns it into a popular Web site, WikiScanner will fall by the wayside, forgotten amid a growing pile of Web 2.0 mash-ups.

But WikiScanner is a start, a genuine start. Maybe Griffith wrote the program as a curiosity, on a whim. Maybe he had a serious intent to watch over the Wikipedia at heart. I don’t know. Either way, we now have a powerful way to check the barely-controlled bias that intentionally creeps into the Wikipedia without compromising the Wikipedia itself.

The WikiScanner, like any watchdog, could stand as an independent group (nay, must be independent). It must be unbiased, and by that I mean it must catch all the mudslingers and yellow-wiki-journalists, regardless of party affiliation, wallet-size and power level. All those attempts to falsify the record and recast history could be brought to the public eye by such a system, and the pacification and neutering of language (calling a “murder” a “death,” for example) could be minimized.

It this takes off, which I hope it will, the Wikipedia will have yet one more tool to affect their mission of providing articles with a NPOV (neutral-point-of-view).


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