With all the recent attention focused on stories of teenagers charged with distributing child pornography for taking sexually suggestive pictures of themselves, jobs lost due to Facebook and MySpace entries, and libel suits over blog posts, people are justifiably concerned about the permanence of material posted to the Internet. Many a teacher or parent has had to carefully explain to children or teens that whatever they post online might be seen by people other than the intended audience, and might be out there for a very long time.

A few people, though, are more concerned about the impermanence of the Internet – a medium where almost anything can be copied, deleted, altered or edited almost invisibly.

When you read the newspaper you can expect each article to be the same in the afternoon as it was in the morning, but on the Web no such guarantee is available. This is a particular issue in cases where a Web site tries to fill the same role as a newspaper – or, most notably, an encyclopedia. Wikipedia, which in a brief time has become one of the Web's most widely used services, is perhaps the quintessential "Web 2.0" enterprise: it's an encyclopedia intended to be written and edited by its readers. At the beginning this was more of a conceit than a reality – much of its early content was transcribed from early-20th Century encyclopedias that had fallen into the public domain – but for some time now Wikipedia has had an active and sometimes noisy community of authors and editors. It is largely in this community that the debate over the mutability of Web content has been going on.

Speaking broadly, the Wikipedia community can be broken into two camps on this issue: inclusionists and deletionists. Inclusionists believe that everything that has ever been added to Wikipedia, so long as it is not factually incorrect, should be left there; they point to the site's virtual nature, which allows it to have an unlimited number of "pages," as trumping the usual limitation on what can be included in an encyclopedia. Deletionists, on the other hand, feel that in order to be taken seriously, Wikipedia needs to be kept at least somewhat orderly and relevant, and favour the removal of articles and information they consider to be "trivial." Any Wikipedia user can propose deletion for any article; a debate page is then created where the proposed deletion can be discussed, and after a short time an administrator – administrators are volunteers nominated by other users, not employees – surveys the discussion and makes the final decision.

The inclusionists' battle is a losing one: no matter how many pages they manage to save, others will be deleted. Some have resigned themselves to this fact, but some – unwilling to let even a single article fade into oblivion – have organized a rival venture: Deletionpedia. Unlike Wikipedia, Deletionpedia is not edited by its users; instead it is maintained by a computer program that surveys Wikipedia for imminent deletions and then copies and stores the doomed pages. Unlike Wikipedia, Deletionpedia revels in the trivial: at the time of writing the featured articles on its home page included an early draft of the most recent Indiana Jones movie; a bicycle club in Chennai, India; and "a young bugbear in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign played by the Northland Preparatory Academy Games Club."

Because Wikipedia can be edited by users, there are often more subtle issues than whether a whole page should be deleted or not. Wikipedia pages are constantly mutating: some changes, such as the mistaken statement that Pop-Tarts have been discontinued in Australia, are subtle; others, such as when the entire Pop-Tarts page was replaced with the words NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!, are not. Automated editors take care of most of the latter cases, but the subtler ones require human editors.

A recent example of a subtle edit is the case of Jim Prentice, former minister of Industry. Shortly before the controversial bill C-61 (Act to Amend the Copyright Act) was to be tabled, in June of 2008, blogger and law professor Michael Geist discovered a number of edits had been made to Prentice's Wikipedia entry. The changes included removing some language critical of Prentice as well as adding positive material such as stating that he had been "dubbed the unofficial deputy prime minister."

None of this is too different from the usual activity on a Wikipedia entry, and compared to what happens on a Star Trek page it could be considered quite mild. What made it unusual was where the changes came from. In 2007 Virgil Griffith, a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, created a program called Wikiscanner which tracks Wikipedia edits and shows from which IP address they were made. A wikiscan of the Prentice changes showed that they had been made from computers at the Ministry of Industry. (Whether they were done under Prentice's orders or by over-eager subordinates has never been established.) This fact drew some unwelcome media attention to Prentice at a time when C-61 was already under fire from some quarters, making it feasible that the controversy played some role in Prentice's move to a new ministry in the recent cabinet shuffle.

What's more significant than the attempts to burnish Prentice's online image is the degree to which Prentice and his staff were revealed to be ignorant of the nature of Wikipedia and the Web in general. Beyond their being unaware of Wikiscanner, or the large and active Wikipedia community which polices changes, it seems hard to believe that they thought changing his entry would influence anyone's opinion. Wikipedia editors, and Web users in general, are accustomed to watching for "sock puppets" (dummy accounts used to make it look like others agree with you). The staff at Industry Canada, though, seems to have thought that Wikipedia was actually an encyclopedia – that people would believe whatever they wrote there, because it was in print. Given the recent importance of new media in U.S. politics, the fact that Industry Canada seems to be locked in the pre-Internet age may be the most disturbing thing to come out of this whole story.

Questions for class discussion

  • Do you think that the fact that Wikipedia can be edited by its users makes it an unreliable source of information? Why or why not?
  • Why is Wikiscanner a useful tool in judging whether material in a Wikipedia entry is reliable? What other tools or techniques could be used to test the reliability of Wikipedia content?
  • Do you believe that online information sources such as Wikipedia should be limited to "relevant" topics, like a traditional encyclopedia, or should they include all possible content? Why?