The Truthiness According to Wikipedia

Posted on April 8, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

An interesting documentary created by Dutch director IJsbrand van Veelen premiered at the Next Web conference. Entitled “The Truth According to Wikipedia,” van Veelen offers a critical look at Wikipedia and Web 2.0 in general.

Featured in the documentary are prominent Web 2.0 proponents, including Jimmy Wales and Tim O’Reilly. Web 2.0 skeptic Andrew Keen, author of “,” does most of the anti-Web 2.0 heavy lifting along with the former editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, Bob McHenry.

“The Truth According to Wikipedia” is required viewing for anybody interested in Web 2.0, modern culture and the idea of truth. While van Veelen has admitted that he tends to agree with Keen’s arguments, his documentary is fairly well-balanced and gives all parties ample opportunity to state their cases.

Of course, as is not surprising, I tend to agree with Keen’s arguments (with some exceptions). While I can’t say that there is no value in Web 2.0, the romanticized notion that the “democratization” of the Internet is somehow making the world a better place just doesn’t seem to be reflected in the world around us and I think significant dangers do arise when knowledge sourced from individuals who are educated, trained, skilled and/or experienced is devalued while knowledge sourced from average idiots is valued at all.

Not surprisingly, some Web 2.0 proponents haven’t reacted favorably to “The Truth According to Wikipedia.” According to TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld, who interviewed van Veelen on stage at the Next Web conference, “People in the audience were seething, and one man came prepared with a speech denouncing the filmmaker.”

Unfortunately, I don’t expect Web 2.0 proponents to respond with similarly insightful (and well-balanced) documentaries of their own. That would be asking for far too much. Better to simply thank god that a Conference 2.0 Twitter mob apparently didn’t break out.

Of course, the participatory nature of Web 2.0 always provides a source of amusement and I couldn’t help but be entertained by some of the comments posted on TechCrunch.

Jesus H Christ
April 8th, 2008 at 9:18 am

the author is an assHOLE, what has his shitty book contributed. It has no value to anybody but himself. I think almost everybody knows that wikipedia has it’s flaws, however it’s benefits far out weigh it’s short comings. It’s currently the best system on the web of gathering information.

i suspect when wikipedia’s article growth starts to flat line, they will adopt a better method of quality control since they no longer need rapid growth to reach critical mass. Some people think that wikipedia is already there

Apparently Jesus was too busy producing wine to learn proper grammar. That said, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt since Aramaic is his first language and he’s currently taking an ESL class in preparation for his Second Coming.

Jonathan Coffman
April 8th, 2008 at 9:32 am

Wikipedia offers a great service to the community and in my research conducted there, it tends to be more accurate than not, and isn’t that what inquisitive minds wants?

I love that the topic of journalists and journalism has come up in this discussion because it is very similar. A reporter may go out and do a story without knowing a single thing about the actual topic at hand, but they come back with a lot of information.

Even if the initial ‘report’ in the newspaper, online, or on TV wasn’t completely accurate, it’s a step toward “The Truth” Big T truth, the ultimate Truth of the story. That’s a lot how I see wikipedia, we all know it’s downfalls but more often than not, what is there is a stepping stone to further information and research about any given topic.

It may not be ‘completely accurate’ or “The Truth”, but it’s a lot better than falling blindly into a cave on a topic.

Inquisitive minds wants? That’s a lot how I see wikipedia? We all know it’s downfalls? I think Jonathan has fallen into an alternate reality where grammar and poor sentence structure is a fact of life.

April 8th, 2008 at 10:29 am

Your Perception IS Your Reality!

Or in Wikipedia’s case “Our perception is what we make it”. If a majority of people think marketing is dead then its dead and no “expert” can say otherwise.

And who are these gatekeepers or experts? Are Michael Dell and his cronies the experts? Because they are running Dell into the ground. If you ask music industry experts how the music industry is or should be run I think I will pass on the their expert opinions.

Maybe we should have two versions of Wiki one for bullshit and that is for corporations and MBA’s, and another one for us with the real power, the ones who decide if its shit or not.

One of my favorite kool aid sippers, Jason Ervin, now sounding like Morpheus, is back with more incoherent, nonsensical babble that is plagued by his trademark spelling and grammar style.

April 8th, 2008 at 12:25 pm

And what is a filmmaker doing in a web conference?
He should get over it - wikipedia rocks.
But let’s keep it simple, he’s just looking for the easy way to
gain some reputation.
And the documentary very boring nothing essencial in there.
Oh and Keen? What an arrogant a*****e. I guess bad childhood.

There are a hundered people dying every day and yet if wikipedia
has valid content is more important like not the history is tought
different in each part of the country. So what is truth?

The truth, Steve, is that you should not be allowed anywhere near a keyboard given your obvious intellectual deficits. Better to lurk and be thought a fool than to post and remove all doubt.

To be fair, there are a couple of reasonable comments posted on each side of the argument, but for the most part, the Web 2.0 average seems to hold true: 99% bullshit, 1% substance. The comments on TechCrunch highlight, on a small scale, what’s wrong with Web 2.0.

The biggest problem with the Web 2.0 model where everyone is given a “voice” (in an echo chamber no less) is not that Web 2.0 systems like Wikipedia are imperfect. It’s not that there are far too many voices. And it’s not even that many participants are narcissistic.

The biggest problem with the Web 2.0 model is that, sadly, most people lack the intelligence, knowledge, skill and experience to contribute anything of substantive value to others. To paraphrase George Carlin, the problem is that “there are a few winners, a whole lot of losers.”

The sooner we get over this asininely romantic and naively egalitarian notion that every single person has something worthwhile to say, the better off we’ll be. People might start listening and observing again. These two activities are the true fountainheads of knowledge and have always served as the starting points for those who become enlightened individuals capable of contributing real value to society.

Of course, I truly believe that this ideological debate is, for the most part most, a clever distraction. Most of the Web 2.0 ideology is merely a cover for capitalism. After all, the bourgeois hippies who have propagated much of the Web 2.0 ideology aren’t getting their hands dirty to change the world this time around. They no longer protest and drive VW Vanagons. They sit comfortably in Aeron chairs in class-A office space. They jet-set around the world to speak at conferences. They enjoy nice dinners on their expense accounts. And they can’t resist a little “free love” (although when that’s not available, a massage parlor in Moscow apparently suffices).

Yes, Web 2.0 followers will be disappointed to learn that the much-ballyhooed democratization of the Internet is not about empowering individuals and making the world a better place inasmuch as it is about making lots of money. The leaders of Web 2.0 don’t hate The Man - they want to take what The Man has with the help of the masses. The model is quite simple:

1. Give individuals a useless echo chamber.
2. Tell them that they now have a powerful platform to be heard, change the world and usher in an age of digital democracy.
3. ?
4. Profit.

Perhaps this should be the subject of IJsbrand van Veelen’s next documentary.

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6 Responses to “The Truthiness According to Wikipedia”

  1. Jenny on April 9th, 2008 4:56 am

    Dude… I usually really enjoy your posts, but I mean, c’mon, picking on the (very slight, i might add) grammatical errors of some randos is poor form.

    You otherwise make some great points about romanticizing these technologies, but I think it’s really hard for someone so obviously deeply embedded and invested in the industry to realize that most people in the “real world” don’t actually know that much about Web 2.0 or care for the insulated world of, say, the blogosphere.

    I think most people don’t really want to share/contribute to “the world”… they wanna groom & gossip with one another… :) viva facebook!

  2. antje wilsch on April 9th, 2008 11:35 am

    ok you like this guy’s substance, but please tell me you don’t like this style… he’s not funny at all (yet thinks he is, the worst kind)…

  3. Greg Schnese on April 9th, 2008 5:51 pm


    I’m a fan, but I’ve gotta tell you, the anti Web 2.0 stance is getting old. Instead of telling us why Web 2.0 sucks, you should tell us how to fix it.

    For example, if giving everyone a voice (blogs, Twitter, etc) is a bad idea, what’s the solution? Why did blogging become so popular to begin with?

    Blogs are popular because they are hyper focused and fast. I get more, relevant info and opinion, from blogs (including this one) than from newspapers, TV and radio.

    So what’s the solution? Old media clearly had gaps, which new media fills. That’s just supply and demand.

    I also appreciate the irony of an anti Web 2.0 blog that features YouTube clips.

    I’ll check back soon, I hope you reply!



  4. Drama 2.0 on April 9th, 2008 10:59 pm

    Greg: as I’ve noted in many of my posts, there is value to be found in some Web 2.0 services. Unfortunately, the value has been exaggerated and the hype far exceeds the substance. I don’t think that makes me anti-Web 2.0 as much as it makes me anti-Web 2.0 hype.

    Regarding blogs: outside of the technology space, I think you’ll find that blogs are a lot less popular than many technologists and bloggers think they are. You might want to read entitled “The democratisation of news media - another Web 2.0 myth.” It discusses the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2008 report. Two important highlights:

    - Research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected.
    - Nearly half of Americans who read blogs read them for entertainment while only 15% read them for news and information.

    Obviously, there are blogs that have great informational content but for the most part, blogs, especially those outside of the technology space, simply regurgitate news and content from the mainstream media. Some throw in opinion and frankly, much of that opinion amounts to little more than incoherent babble.

    So what’s the solution? How can Web 2.0 be fixed?

    The truth is that Web 2.0 doesn’t have a technology problem that needs fixing. What Web 2.0 needs is perspective. Instead of pretending that Web 2.0 services are the best thing since sliced bread and that Twitter, Digg, Facebook, blogs, et. al. are going to kill off Big Media, those involved with Web 2.0 would be served best by recognizing that, to use your words, some Web 2.0 services can “fill” certain “gaps.”

    Many of these services will never go mainstream and many will have a marginal impact on the world at large; few of these services reasonably require large amounts of funding and even fewer fill billion-dollar gaps.

    A healthy does of reality that helps Web 2.0 ideologues see the forest for the trees is what’s in order. Hopefully the economy’s impact on Silicon Valley will provide the perspective that’s needed.

  5. Gregory Schnese on April 10th, 2008 10:49 am


    Thanks for your reply. It was stimulating as usual.

    I’ll start this reply by addressing the “us vs. them” mentality. I don’t believe the new media vs. old media issue (for lack of better words) is “us vs. them” or a “zero-sum gain.” It’s seductive to think like this because everyone loves a good fight, but it’s just not true. As I mentioned before, new media can fill the gaps and create new spaces.

    I have a subscription to the Economist (old media) which I love, yet I still read many blogs. Why? Because the blogs cover topics that the Economist doesn’t. Clearly, once we get past the “us vs. them” mentality, the opportunities are obvious.

    I read your article “The democratisation of news media - another Web 2.0 myth” and was left thinking it was too soon. It’s too early and too easy to point at blogs and show where they fall short. You’re key points:

    “- Research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected.”

    Who expected this number? What does this even mean? It would be more helpful and informative to show the total traffic generated by blogs, by year, since 2000. This will clearly show an increase in traffic, which is the point. Blogs are growing whether they live up to someone’s expectations or not; there is a need for blogs.

    “- Nearly half of Americans who read blogs read them for entertainment while only 15% read them for news and information.”

    Show the total number of Americans that read blogs, by year, since 2000. I’m sure these numbers are going up. Then, for each year, show how many read for entertainment. These numbers would provide more information.

    Also, just look at the circulation of the top 10 newspapers. ( 3 of the top 10 are “entertainment” newspapers (USA Today, Daily News, Inquirer). You’re applying a double standard; people like to read for entertainment, it doesn’t matter if they read a newspaper or a blog.

    I say this with respect, but your article and the research it was based on wasn’t helpful because the information has little context.

    To address the rest of your reply, I don’t think blogs or citizen journalists need to be profitable or mainstream to be valuable. If I write a post (even this reply), that’s read by 10 people and helps them, that’s a win. Because blogging is so cheap now, I and many others can continue helping people in small or large numbers. These numbers add up and fill in the gaps, no one blog needs to do this because many, collectively, can.

    The old media’s distribution methods and their corporate structures are in trouble, but there is, and will always be, value in “professional” information. However, this info can always be augmented and enhanced by others.



  6. Drama 2.0 on April 11th, 2008 11:49 am

    It really isn’t an “us vs. them” world but much of the Web 2.0 community sees it that way and that’s how the market has been positioned. One need only look at the constant death notices for Big Media as a reminder of that.

    New media and old media aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, as I’ve pointed out many times, quite a few Big Media companies are having quite a bit of success with new media. Viacom and News Corp. are two shining examples.

    When it comes to blogs, again, I never stated that there wasn’t a market for blogs and Web 2.0 services in general. My position is that the market is, for the most part, significantly smaller than what Web 2.0 proponents believe it is.

    Regarding my points: these are figures provided in the State of the News Media 2008 report and I think you’re reading far too much into them.

    The first point simply highlights that, while blogs are a hot “meme” and many believe them to be having a significant impact on the way news and information is reported, the number of people reading them is smaller than one would expect given the amount of “hype.”

    For instance, there has been significant talk about how much influence some political bloggers exhibit. Yet Harris Interactive found that 56% of Americans don’t read political blogs at all, and only 1 in 5 reads them regularly.

    This does not marginalize political blogs. They are what they are. What it does demonstrate is that, for all of the discussion about the impact of political blogs, for instance, most Americans don’t even read them.

    In regards to the second point, while I’m not sure that USA Today is properly classified as an “entertainment” newspaper, let’s assume it is. If 3 of the top 10 newspapers are “entertainment” newspapers, that ostensibly means that 70% of the top 10 newspapers are “information” newspapers. If the research showing that 50% of blogs are read for entertainment is accurate, there is a 20% difference in this area between newspapers and blogs. And if 70% of the top 10 newspapers are “information” newspapers while only 15% of blogs are “information” blogs, there is a 55% difference in this area.

    Obviously, this is a very rough and less-than-satisfying comparison (in my opinion), but I have no doubt that the general trends are probably fairly accurate.

    Finally, of course you’re going to see a significant growth in blog publishing and readership since 2000. Internet penetration during this time has increased and the “market” for blogs developed after 2000. That tells us little more than, “Blogs have experienced rapid growth since their birth” which is true of almost any new “medium.” So what?

    Here’s the context:

    1. Blogs are an interesting phenomenon and they do have a place in the market. Their role in the market has been overhyped but this is to be expected as most new phenomena are prone to hype.

    2. “Old Media” is embracing new distribution methods but this realistically won’t happen overnight. Blogs are a distribution medium. Their existence doesn’t inherently impact the way news and information are “created.”

    3. As a commenter named Ken Luallen stated here:

    “The web is a great distribution model but there’s very little actual reporting being done. Content on the web comes almost entirely from newspapers and TV stations, and those are dying. Every once in awhile a blogger comes up with a good tidbit of information - say, on a politician - but the legwork that actual *develops* the full story is done by old media. Blogs and websites have not stepped in to take the role of traditional journalists at all.”

    My discussion of content production versus content distribution is relevant to this topic.

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