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Believe It or Not 

Inside the wild and wacky world of Wikipedia

Published November 29, 2006 at 3:33 p.m.

Looking for information about Essex High School? Do a quick search on Google and the fourth entry that pops up is a handsome-looking page. It includes a brief history of the school, paragraphs discussing academics and athletics, and a short list of notable alumni. A sidebar provides a photo, 2004 enrollment numbers, the school colors and contact information.

But if you'd visited the page in late October, you would have found some surprising information. Under "Student Activities," you would have read, "At EHS students are free to do whatever they wish in their time after school," the text read. "This policy has lead to the creation of the Zombie Killing Squad, the Pro-Zombie acceptance committee, the Zombie Hate club and the debate team."

Say what? Welcome to Wikipedia.

The web-based reference site launched in 2001. It currently boasts more than 1.5 million English-language entries. Interested in the Eiffel Tower? Wikipedia pops up as the third link, behind only the French and English versions of the official website. Curious about Bill Clinton? Wikipedia is the second link, sandwiched between the White House website and the homepage for Clinton's own charitable foundation.

Despite the -pedia in its name - the "wiki" comes from a Hawaiian phrase meaning "quick" - Wikipedia is not a traditional reference resource. Unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, a for-profit product written and edited by professionals, Wikipedia is run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, and is written and edited by anyone who signs up for a free account. These volunteer Wikipedians could be scholars, hobbyists - or destructive punks pent on promulgating Zombie lore. You never know whose words you'll get.

Wikipedia enthusiasts say this hands-off approach allows anyone with knowledge of a topic to add information and correct errors, but many scholars and critics question Wikipedia's accuracy. Both sides have considerable ammunition: Supporters point to a 2005 study showing Encyclopedia Britannica's scientific entries have as many errors as Wikipedia's; detractors cite the many persistent vandals who muck up the pages of prominent politicians.

Essex High School's Wikipedia entry wasn't created by a professional web designer, but by '05 graduate Steve Brown, currently enrolled at Brigham Young University. Principal Rob Reardon says he was unaware that a former student had created his school's page.

But Brown is not the only EHS alum who has contributed. At the top of each Wikipedia entry is a tab that says "history." Click on that and you can see a list showing who has edited the article, when they changed it, and what they added or deleted from the entry.

That's where you can find the reference to Zombies. The text was added by a vandal Wikipedian calling himself "Chrono King." Besides mucking with the information about activities, Chrono King also altered the list of notable alumni. After Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie and human-rights activist Loung Ung, he added "Nick Dorfner, National Zombie Killing Record Holder."

Anyone who clicked on the page after Chrono King's attack would have seen the bogus information - but not for long. Like many Wiki- pedians, Brown routinely patrols his contributions, watching for vandals. He caught Chrono King's distortions within a matter of hours and de-Zombified the page.

Then he de-Zombified it again, after Chrono King reposted his misinformation. The back-and-forth went on over the course of two days, until Brown finally warned Chrono King that if he tried again he would be banned from the site. What made Brown so vigilant? "It's a responsibility," he says gravely.

People like Brown make Wikipedia work. Actually, quite a few folks in Vermont - not just unaffiliated Wikipedians such as Brown - guard specific pages. A self-appointed, 15-member group calling itself WikiProject Vermont keeps an eye on the state's entries and looks for ways to improve them.

Michael "Mick" Maguire, who wrote most of the entry for Tunbridge, Vermont, is a native of Bedford, England. He began work on the Tunbridge page after moving to the central Vermont town this summer. "I just got involved reading local history and things like that," says the Dartmouth College computing project manager. "I stumbled across the Tunbridge page, found that there wasn't very much there, and thought I could contribute something."

If a vandal were to deface the Tunbridge Wikipedia page, Maguire would catch it. But he'd be less qualified to catch a historical inaccuracy.

Wikipedia encourages its users to cite sources for their material, but it's still possible for something bogus to sneak through. The entry for Ethan Allen, for example, looks legitimate enough, but Kevin Graffagnino, president of the Vermont Historical Society and author of The Quotable Ethan Allen, gives it a B-.

Graffagnino offers a laundry list of criticisms that might not be apparent to the casual observer. The entry, it seems, is misleading. "It's hard for me to approve of the text saying that Ethan and the Green Mountain Boys successfully carved out the Republic . . . and later the State of Vermont,'" he says. "Ethan was in British captivity when Vermont declared its independence in 1777, and the Green Mountain Boys were not prominent among the leaders of the group that took that 1777 initiative."

The article's claim that Ethan was charged with treason is just plain wrong, he adds. "To the best of my knowledge, the United States never charged Ethan with treason; there were suspicions about the Vermont negotiations with the British in Canada, but no charges were ever filed."

"Also," Graffagnino continues, "I think it's an exaggeration to say that Ethan conducted the negotiations. He was in on them, but he was hardly the Vermont kingpin."

The fact that errors like these can routinely go unchallenged worries educators such as Erik Esselstrom, a professor of East Asian history at the University of Vermont. Esselstrom says many of his students don't understand Wikipedia's limitations. "It's actually a real problem," he says. "They're convinced it's a legitimate source. They don't understand that you can't believe everything or even necessarily anything that you find on there."

Even worse, Esselstrom reports he's caught students lifting material from the site and simply pasting it into their papers. He now prints out Wikipedia entries before assigning paper topics. "If I see any familiar passages," he says, "I nail 'em."

But librarian and tech-teacher Jessamyn West, who is also a member of the WikiProject Vermont, urges teachers to embrace the site. At one point, she actually went through all the Vermont pages and added links to available town websites.

"I was just at a library conference in Portland, Oregon," she says, "and Wikipedia was a big topic of conversation. Even though Wikipedia isn't strictly 'authoritative,' there are still a ton of students using it, and [the librarians] were talking about how to turn that attention into a way to teach kids about research skills and evaluating sources."

"People are just totally into Wikipedia," she observes, "and it's up to librarians and educators to figure out what to do with that, since clearly saying, 'Well, it's just Wikipedia . . .' will not keep people away from it."

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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