The Ugly (but necessary?) side of Wikipedia

As I’ve written before, I like wikipedia a lot. I link to it often.

And it’s getting very big: “The Wikipedia, which has surged this year to become the most popular reference site on the Web, is fast overtaking several major news sites as the place where people swarm for context on breaking events.” (Steve Rubel on a Reuters article)

But the free and open editing system can be ugly at times, and tonight I saw something very ugly.

I saw the movie Ray today and really enjoyed learning more about Ray Charles’ life. After the movie I sat down at my laptop and looked him up on Wikipedia (and fired up the iPod to listen to more of his music). The Wikipedia Ray Charles entry is quite good, informative and interesting. But as I read further, I saw the following:

Note the last word in the image above – possibly the most vile and hateful word in our language.

Since anyone, ANYONE, can edit wikipedia (I’ve written entries myself), there are no real-time controls on this kind of abuse. It’s the beauty of Wikipedia, and its most often heard criticism.

My first question is, how can someone smart enough to use a computer and edit a wiki be so ignorant as to write something so horrible?

My second question is, what, if anything, can Wikipedia do to stop these kinds of things from happening and yet retain the complete editorial openness that they have today? Wikipedia recently announced that they will be experimenting with new editorial rules to stop things like this. Maybe this will help.

I think one thing they should consider is a simple dictionary filter of questionable words…and freeze those edits until someone can review them. Character recognition technology is advanced enough now that this will work for words in images too.

Some good news – the entry was amended and the word removed in the time it took me to write this post (I just checked). Good. Maybe I just came accross it during the few minutes (I hope) that it was up on the site.