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Technology & Innovation

Open Source Content As Erroneous As Ever

Though it’s been year of scandal for two of the largest interactive sites on the web, the loose nature of open-source content has emerged unscathed.

First came the Craiglist sex scandals. To thwart the Craigslist killer, attorneys general pressured the site until it removed its Erotic Services category from its listings. Then late last week, Wikipedia announced it would ban users with IP addresses belonging to the Church of Scientology as well as those of anti-Scientologists after a long tug-of-war saw both sides edit the church’s wiki to their liking.

This is not the first time Wikipedia has seen its policy of allowing anyone to edit site information misfire. In 2006, Stephen Colbert induced his nation of fans who blindly do whatever he asks to edit pages of the online encyclopedia with erroneous information. The previous year there was the John Seigenthaler controversy when a user edited the newspaper editor’s wiki to say he was involved in the JFK assassination. On both occasions Wikipedia overlords stepped in and laid down the law when troublemakers violated the site’s honor system. 

So have the ethics of user-generated content really changed with the controversies at Craigslist and Wikipedia? Not really. Craigslist may have taken down its erotic services to get the feds off its back, but the Casual Encounters are still sufficiently raunchy if not illegal.

As The Big Money points out, the whole point of the site it to allow for people to interact and trade services without the filter of a prudish classifieds editor–or a pimp for that matter. As such, you can expect founder Craig Newmark to continue to give the kind of politically correct non-answers to questions of criminal activity on Craigslist that he gave Big Think in February.

Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine Wikipedia without the occasional misfits who hack wikis just for kicks, though they probably give Wikipedia’s higher-ups the uh-oh feeling to hinder the kind of collaboration the site so values.

As a user, you know what you’re getting into with both sites. On Craigslist, there’s always the possibility that the person on the other end has dishonorable intentions, especially in certain categories. And while most information on Wikipedia is reliable, a user still must fact check since there’s nothing to stop me or you or anybody else from logging in and changing the “facts.” Site administrators and elected officials might intervene when there’s public pressure, but it’s really up to us to accept the caveats that come with the greater good of open source content.


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