It's a wonderful free resource, an online alternative to heavy volumes of printed encyclopaedias. But the popular website Wikipedia is also open to vandalism, leading to bizarre, surreal entries about superhero RTE presenters and werewolves in Mayo. WILLIE DILLON reports
It was a stunt which somebody was bound to pull eventually. An eminent professor of theology, who edited articles on religion on Wikipedia, turned out to be a 24-year-old hoaxer who gleaned his specialist knowledge from books like Catholicism For Dummies.
There were red faces at the world's biggest online encyclopaedia when it emerged that Ryan Jordan had duped users into believing he was an expert in religious studies and canon law. He posted a list of non-existent qualifications, then wrote articles on such topics as penance and transubstantiation. He also "corrected" thousands of articles written by other people.
The scandal was exactly what the website's critics had been waiting for. Wikipedia has a unique distinction for an encyclopaedia: all the articles are written by the public and can be changed by anybody at any time.
People can go online and alter crucial facts, make things up, substitute opinion for fact, insert jokes, write vulgar abuse or promote themselves shamelessly. By its very nature, it is wide open to abuse. You can never be sure that what you're reading is totally accurate.
There have been several celebrated Irish hoaxes. Recently, a pack of bloodthirsty werewolves was said to be terrorising the normally placid town of Swinford, Co Mayo.
It was reported that Pat Kenny used to be a Batman-style vigilante who fought crime on the mean streets of Dublin in the 1970s. And online readers were told that Gerry
Ryan's appetite was so enormous that he was claiming to spend ?50,000 a month on food.
Wikipedia is now one of the busiest sites on the internet.
Regular users will attest that the vast bulk of the information it contains is accurate.
The Wikipedia organisation, however, is a tiny one. Just a handful of employees work at its global HQ in Florida. But the site has its own internal police force - some 75,000 volunteers all over the world who doggedly patrol its six million pages checking for inaccuracies, errors and other dubious material.
When they find this, they take it upon themselves to rectify it immediately.
Being a Wikipedia volunteer is a labour of love. You don't get paid for it. With its massive daily traffic figures, the site could be making billions, but it has chosen not to carry advertising. It's a not-for-profit enterprise and its US founders say they intend keeping it that way. Around 150 Irish Wikipedians donate their time and expertise to keeping the site in order.
They write articles on subjects that interest them, monitor pages and contribute to never-ending debates about editorial content. Some are specialists in their fields. Others get involved because they find it interesting. They rarely meet each other outside the virtual world.
One such volunteer is Dan Egan, a 30-year-old technology company manager from Dublin. He spends roughly an hour a
day checking a range of Wikipedia pages. "I cover pretty much what I'm interested in," Dan says. "Some are articles that I have written myself. Others are generally related to Dublin, or to Cork, where I'm from. I probably don't have the time to be doing it, but it's kind of addictive.
"There is an Irish Wikipedia community noticeboard where new material comes up which people might think needs to have an eye kept on it. Or it might have subjects where there's been vandalism, or where unsourced details have been added to a particular page. There are a few automated tools that we can run to detect certain key words being introduced into articles, like swearwords or terms which might indicate vandalism."
Dan's first Wikipedia article was about the British government decision in 1918 to introduce conscription in Ireland. He also also started pages on the Everyman Theatre in Cork and the history of the bridges over the Liffey.
He is also one of about 20 people writing material in Irish. In that capacity, he has started pages about the Gardai and Aras an Uachtarain. There are now up to 7,000 pages in Irish.
"What you see on Wikipedia is generally accurate," he says. "But just because it's accurate today doesn't mean it still will be tomorrow, because somebody could come in and add something to it."
Pauric Ward, a 19-year-old civil engineer from Magherafelt, Co Derry, describes himself as "one of the bigger editors from Ireland" on Wikipedia. He admits the Swinford hoax was "pretty creative". Somebody rewrote the page for the nearby village of Ballyronan, depicting it in terms of a surreal soap opera.
"By a strange coincidence I found out that it had been done by somebody in my little sister's class in secondary school. I told her to tell him if he did it again, I'd get him banned from Wikipedia."
Pauric wrote his first article last year on an obscure English Victorian painter, Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee. "I found out about him through heavy metal music. There's a famous picture by him on an album cover by a band from Sweden called Bathory."
The young Derryman has also put up pages for a number of GAA clubs in south Derry, written on computer topics and started a page about the Miami Showband Massacre.
"I've written probably about 25 articles, but most of my work is on changing inaccuracies. You can get a bit of a buzz from it. I got good feedback on the GAA articles."
Political articles are by far the most contentious on Wikipedia. What is fact and what is merely somebody's opinion? Was Charlie Haughey a crook? Was Bobby Sands a terrorist?
It can depend on who's writing the page. Behind-the-scenes heated debates are common among users. But Wikipedia has a policy of presenting all information in a neutral fashion.
Says Pauric: "You can't make a claim without backing it up with solid fact. It has to be verifiable online or in a book. The aim is to present everything fairly and not reflect any bias. But because anyone can come on and edit what they want, you have to take everything on Wikipedia with a grain of salt."
Dubliner Feargal Hogan, a professional mariner, has compiled a page of Irish ports.
He has written articles on Irish shipping and his old school, Synge St CBS, and contributed information on the Irish Pound, Dublin Zoo, Ireland's Call, Gatwick Airport (near to where he now lives) and Ardcroney, Co Tipperary, where his father came from.
He goes online for about 15 or 20 minutes, usually three times a day.
Feargal is currently involved in an online tussle with an English musician who was banned from Wikipedia in a "vanity page" row. That's where somebody writes a self-aggrandising article about themselves. Whenever the Wikipedian community spots such a page, it's likely to be deleted.
He believes that if Wikipedia went commercial, it wouldn't be possible to pay all its contributors and most would leave overnight.
"People would just walk away. I wouldn't edit it if I was making money for someone else."
The Swinford werewolves saga spawned a host of similar attacks of local pages around the country. Dan Egan says a lot ofit happened during the most recent school mid-term break. Most were easily spotted and cleaned up.
"If a page is vandalised, it can be much harder to detect if it's done subtly. But that doesn't happen much because it's not so much fun.
"It's not going to come up on the Gerry Ryan Show that somebody changed a date in an article. But if there are werewolves - that's where people get their kicks."
Big hits on Wikipedia
Among other sex-orientated topics Anna Nicole Smith is a popular subject; Pokeman is cool; the curse of the werewolf; Lost in cyberspace; dearly Departed; mine furore; the view from Thermopylae
Swinford: were strange things happen
The Swinford werewolves hoax amused many Wikipedia readers, but angered some locals. Part of it read: "Despite official reticence, the town is widely known in the area as the location of a pack of werewolves.
"The predictability of the pack's habits - hunting only on a full moon - has allowed life in the town to proceed relatively uninterrupted, although the inevitable effect on the licensing trade of these monthly bloodsoaked occasions has led to calls for action by some of the town's traders."
Another joke entry claimed: "One of the biggest All-Ireland Fleadh Ceoils was held in Swinford in 1961 during the weekend of May 20 to 22, and resulted in 65 unplanned pregnancies."