Wikipedia is the Medium

Ron Paul and Mike Gravel are the dark horses of their respective parties. They raise a ruckus during debates and forums, they hold radical positions at odds with their parties’ leadership, and they poll very low (Paul polls between one and three percent in all national polls; Gravel polls even lower). Not surprisingly, news coverage of them is scarce. So fired-up, web-savvy voters, tired of gatekeepers failing to mention more than half of debate participants in their post-mortems, are trying to influence media coverage and public opinion in the most straightforward way they know — by writing and editing Wikipedia entries and Digging sympathetic news articles. The result is that 11 out of the 15 articles on Digg’s election page are about Ron Paul, and his Wikipedia entry is edited dozens of times a day.

Now new numbers from Compete.com show that the top two presidential candidates on Wikipedia are — you guessed it — the low-polling Ron Paul and Mike Gravel (candidates are ranked according to number of article readers, minutes spent on article, percent also visiting candidate’s site, and a few other metrics). While Compete’s Matt Pace says that “The results might come as a surprise to those accustomed to seeing the party front runners capturing all of the headlines,” they weren’t that surprising to me.

This is a trend that’s been affecting news coverage as well presidential politics. In the immediate aftermath of the shootings at Virginia Tech this past spring, the most reliable source for up-to-date information was Wikipedia, so much so that even journalists used it as a source. Noam Cohen of the New York Times counted contributions from over 2,074 editors which resulted in a polished, detailed article on the massacre, with more than 140 separate footnotes, as well as sidebars that profiled the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, and gave a timeline of the attacks. There were 750,000 visits to the page in the two days after the shootings, and it became a vital resource for anyone paying attention to the tragedy, since it was sure to be more up-to-date, and more open to fixes and edits, then anything produced by a traditional news organization.

Because of this and other incidents, Wikipedia has been transformed from an ever-growing reference book into a ever-updating news source. Meanwhile, in the 2008 election mainstream media sources have already decided that the only two, and sometimes three, contenders from either party are worthy of mention. Articles following debates discuss foreign policy tiffs between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, or whether Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani has flip-flopped more on social issues. Now Fred Thompson — with his TV-star appeal, folksy charm, and on-camera comfort — is the latest infatuation.

Meanwhile folks like Mike Huckabee, Mike Gravel, and Dennis Kucinich are often completely ignored. And then there’s Ron Paul, who’s inspired comparisons to Howard Dean in 2004 for the passionate online support he continues to receive.

It’s always amazing to watch a computer application designed for one thing get used for something completely different (see Twitter), and that’s often how innovation happens. What’s interesting about the candidates’ entries in Wikipedia is how a site that was originally designed to be a community-generated encyclopedia has become not only a news source, but a rallying point for grassroots political partisans. It’s as if the Encyclopedia Britannica included community-edited versions of Thomas Paine’s pamphlets in every new edition. The encyclopedia has become its own medium.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s