Wiki Wars: In battle to define beliefs, Mormons and foes wage battle on Wikipedia

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 2:00 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Roger Nicholson was about to send an email, but hesitated. He was staring at his laptop computer screen in an airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, trying to decide what to do. Did he really want to send this?

Nicholson had wrapped up a business trip to Israel and was waiting to take a plane back to his home in the San Francisco Bay Area when he experienced the power of Wikipedia.org to define the world — and his faith.

The e-mail was to a relative on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Nicholson argued in the e-mail that the church was true, that Mormonism is right and that Joseph Smith Jr. was a prophet. He found he was disputing things the doubting missionary had read about the LDS Church on Wikipedia.org, an online encyclopedia.

In an earlier exchange, the missionary told Nicholson that Wikipedia was reliable because the collaborative process ensures its accuracy.

Nicholson disagreed. How could a website be accurate if anybody could change it whenever they wanted to? Somebody had to stand up to this.

He looked at the email he was about to send and made a decision.

Wikipedia could define the world — but not the way he treated others.

"I had a response and was ready to send it, but something just stopped me," Nicholson said. "I decided that I didn't want to define our relationship by contention."

But he felt something still needed to be done. If anybody could edit Wikipedia, why not him?

* * * 

A wiki is a website that makes it easy for many people to edit information together in a collaborative way. There are many wikis online, but Wikipedia, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this month, is the mother of all wikis. Everything about it is huge. Wikipedia is the world's fifth most-visited website. More than 400 million people consult it every month. Almost 100,000 unpaid volunteers edit its 17 million encyclopedia-style articles in 270 languages — 3.5 million articles of which are in English.

If people don't know about something, if they want to find a quick fact, if they want to learn the truth about something, they are turning to Wikipedia. Want to learn how many Tweets-per-minute were sent out when Michael Jackson died? Look on Wikipedia (5,000). Want to know who was Will Roger's wife? The answer is on Wikipedia (Betty Blake). Want to know about the quadratic equation? Why birds fly south? Who killed President Kennedy? Who was Pope when Columbus sailed to America? Wikipedia has can provide the answers to these questions and millions more with a few key strokes. Nicholson learned that if people have questions about the LDS Church and its founder Joseph Smith Jr., they will often turn to Wikipedia for answers first — and trust what they read. Even if they use the search website Google.com, Wikipedia's articles are invariably one of the first listed responses to almost any query.

Organizations are recognizing they can't ignore the impact of the Internet. For example, Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, spoke at BYU-Hawaii graduation on Dec. 15, 2007 about challenges facing the church on the Internet. "Conversations will continue whether or not we choose to participate in them. But we cannot stand on the sidelines while others, including our critics, attempt to define what the church teaches."

For people looking into the doctrines, history and practices of the LDS Church and other religions, Wikipedia is seen as the most accurate, reliable and unbiased definition.

Wikipedia gets to those definitions by the work of its volunteer editors. People who go to the website only see the end result — paragraphs, charts, photographs, references and links on various topics. The whole aura of "encyclopedia" presents an authoritative facade.

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