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Something Wiki This Way Comes: How collaborative editing is changing the face of online LDS apologetics

SANDY, UTAH

Regarding Wikipedia articles about Mormon subjects, think of a Rubik's Cube with each of its colors representing a differing perspective about Mormonism.

Then imagine three people sitting in a circle, one a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one a critic of the Church, and one who knows essentially nothing about it. They pass the cube from one to another. The objective of each person is to fill one face of the cube with his preferred color.

"That pretty much describes the editing process on Wikipedia articles about the Church," said Roger Nicholson, a speaker at the 2011 FAIR Conference.

Brother Nicholson, a Northern California marketing manager for a computer company, spoke Aug. 5 on the topic "Something Wiki This Way Comes: How Collaborative Editing is Changing the Face of Online LDS Apologetics."

Roger Nicholson presents during the FAIR conference. His topic was 'Somethinig Wiki This Way Comes: How Collaborative Editing is Changing the Face of Online LDS Apologetics'.
Roger Nicholson presents during the FAIR conference. His topic was 'Somethinig Wiki This Way Comes: How Collaborative Editing is Changing the Face of Online LDS Apologetics'. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

In a wiki model such as Wikipedia, an encyclopedic database of articles on disparate subjects is presented on the Internet, with one person creating an article and subsequently, Internet users from all over the world being able to edit, alter, add to or delete from the article.

"The new editor sets sail toward the wiki article with high hopes, thinking that he or she is well-armed," Brother Nicholson explained. "The reality is often very, very different. They don't see, buried below the surface, the wreckage of all of the past edit wars, nor do they see the nuclear sub that is ready to blast them out of the water the first time they try to land."

He said there is more than meets the eye on the main page of an article. "The real action, the really fun stuff, occurs behind the scenes on what's called the 'talk page.' If you click the 'Discussion' tab at the top, you'll see page after page of discussion."

The discussion takes the form of warring over edits and reversions of previously edited material.

In the context of articles on Mormonism, "just imagine a message board which is filled with critics and believers, and then imagine that those critics and believers have to collaborate in order to produce a written article," Brother Nicholson said. "That's Wikipedia."

He quoted one talk-page comment from a Wikipedia administrator: "I'd love to ban all Mormons from editing those articles due to bias, but that's never going to happen, so in this case we just have to let the opposing parties work it out between themselves."

A respondent countered: "I wonder how far your logic goes. Would you ban all scientists from editing articles about science? How about banning doctors from editing articles about health? Ban Native Americans from editing articles about their tribes? I hope you see where this logic leads."

Roger Nicholson left, a speaker at the FAIR conference, converses between sessions with Louis Midgley, retired professor of political science at BYU and now a prominent Mormon apologist closely involved with the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU.
Roger Nicholson left, a speaker at the FAIR conference, converses between sessions with Louis Midgley, retired professor of political science at BYU and now a prominent Mormon apologist closely involved with the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Another talk-page commenter said: "Frankly every time we start citing Wikipedia rules, I see that as a Mormon smoke screen."

Brother Nicholson spoke of an editor of Wikipedia articles on Mormonism who uses the screen name John Foxe, identifying him as a professor of history at Bob Jones University and an active Evangelical.

"He has taken editorial control over several high-profile LDS articles, among them 'Joseph Smith Jr.,' 'the First Vision,' 'Golden Plates,'" Brother Nicholson said. "If you show up on one of those articles, you will very likely, with 99 percent probability, have your edits reverted by John Foxe."

Brother Nicholson said Wikipedia forbids the posting of original research and mandates that articles rely mainly on "published, reliable, secondary sources."

That has the effect, he said, of excluding Joseph Smith's own words in an article about the Mormon prophet, and that Wikipedia editors must rely upon what other published authors say about Joseph Smith.

"That means Fawn Brodie is back, and this time she has a wiki," Brother Nicholson said, alluding to the now-deceased author of No Man Knows My History, a famous biography of Joseph Smith published in the 1940s that essentially branded him a fraud.

Having tried for years to keep the record straight in Wikipedia regarding Mormonism, Brother Nicholson said he has observed that in articles an author's opinion is often passed of as "wiki fact," disparate sources are synthesized with inaccurate results, LDS sources are discredited and there is pretense that some sources don't exist.

Brother Nicholson was featured in a Jan. 30 Deseret News article, "Wiki Wars: In a battle to define beliefs, Mormons and foes wage battle on Wikipedia." He administers the FAIR Wiki which features numerous articles on Mormonism.

The FAIR Wiki has influenced the content of Wikipedia, the speaker said. John Foxe, while resisting changes by others to his edits, has corrected some of his own errors, prompted, Brother Nicholson said, by what has appeared on the FAIR Wiki.

He also said that FAIR Wiki is becoming better and better known, often showing up second on the list of "hits" -- behind Wikipedia itself -- in Google searches on Mormonism-related topics.

In a question-answer session, Brother Nicholson said Latter-day Saints need to be aware of what is being posted on the Internet about the Church so that they can be prepared to provide correct information to acquaintances who may have been misled by what they have read online.

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