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Cnaan Liphshiz
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Cnaan Liphshiz

The man who offed Santa seemed quite unrepentant after landing in Israel last week. David Shankbone, a leading editor for the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, came here at the invitation of the Foreign Ministry, which sought to give the 33-year-old rationalist a first-hand understanding of the country.

"It's true, I wrote the Wikipedia section saying Santa Claus isn't real," Shankbone confesses. "It didn't make me very popular - especially among kids."

But Shankbone's site is popular enough, albeit controversial. The foundation of Wikipedia is that anyone can contribute and edit any of the site's 9 million entries in 256 languages. With as many as 35,000 page requests per second, Wikipedia is ranked as one of the world's 10 leading Web sites. All the more reason for Wikipedia to call Santa's bluff, says Shankbone.

It appears that like any democracy, Wikipedia is committed to protecting its core values by limiting its democratic nature. "We're there for knowledge, not for upholding cultural myths," Shankbone said over creme brulee at a restaurant on Nachlat Binyamin Street in Tel Aviv. "And we can't hide the truth by saying 'people say' Santa Claus delivers gifts to all good children. So we flushed it out."

David Saranga from the Consulate General in New York, who initiated and organized the visit, invited Shankbone and a dozen or so American journalists in the hope of flushing out what Saranga calls the U.S. media's "one-dimensional view of Israel."

"Wikipedia deals with a wide variety of topics, so bringing David Shankbone to Israel can have an effective result," says Saranga, who serves as the consul for media and public affairs.

"I came partly because we at Wikipedia try to escape the normal media narrative," Shankbone says, to Saranga's evident satisfaction. "Since it's a collaborative environment, we don't have an issue with being taken to Israel on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, as other journalists might. Anything I write is checked over by other people, so bribing me would be pointless."

Listening to Shankbone's confidence when speaking of Wikipedia's impartiality, one might wonder whether he means to say the open and free-for-all site employs a stricter editing code than established publications like the New York Times or the Washington Post. "In theory, yes," he confirms.

"American media has seen certain narratives form, and not just about Israel but about China, Iran and France," he says. "We see the same stories being recycled over and over again in the mainstream media because it fits the narrative they'd created."

Wikipedia, Shankbone says, is different because it "covers everything" - the Palestinian side, the Israeli side and everything in between.

Over time, Shankbone says, thousands will edit the entries he adds during and after his visit on various aspects of Israeli life. Shankbone also writes for the site's news section, Wikinews, which employs 25 reporters.

Saranga says Wikipedia is generally fair in regard to Israel. He is unfazed when he hears that the entry on Israel mentions the word "occupation" nine times, whereas the entry on the Palestinian People mentions "terror" only once. "It means only one thing: Israelis should be more active on Wikipedia. Instead of blaming it, they should go on the site much more, and try and change it."

Many would disagree with Saranga's opinion that because Wikipedia is democratic, it cannot be accused of being slanted. Conservapedia, for example, sprang up last year as a reaction to what the conservative-Christian Web encyclopedia calls Wikipedia's "liberal bias."

"You have to start with a baseline when dealing with knowledge, and Wikipedia does air on the side of science," Shankbone retorts, referring to the fact that many of Conservapedia's articles support the creationist point of view.

Addressing the issue of its own questionable credibility, Wikipedia's disclaimer says that at the Web encyclopedia, "nothing has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide reliable information," and encourages users to cross-reference and verify all data with other sources.

But Web experts, laymen and children alike know that countless users do treat Wikipedia as a one-stop shop for information. Shankbone argues this does not make Wikipedia responsible for its content, since it's only a platform or a host for information.

"If you advertise a scooter on a supermarket bulletin board, is the supermarket responsible if you don't have a scooter?" he asks. Conceding some would object to likening a Web site that receives 7 percent of all daily Internet traffic to a bulletin board, Shankbone adds that regulating the overwhelming inflow of material is a "mission impossible."

Yet Shankbone objects to the suggestion that this makes Wikipedia a potentially irresponsible project. He cites its "tremendous contribution" to how knowledge works and is treated, and its effects on relevant aspects of everyday life. "Think about before Wikipedia existed. Where would you go for an overview of a subject?" he says.

Despite this, Shankbone says treating Wikipedia as a one-stop-shop for knowledge goes against what the Web site stands for. "For the love of God, go out and find things out on your own. Don't listen to Fox News, don't listen to The Jerusalem Post. Go out and find different things. One source for knowledge is terrible."

Indeed, Google, the American Web services giant, seems to concur. This month the company announced it was working on a collaborative online encyclopedia called Knol, which could compete with Wikipedia. Google's vice president of engineering, Udi Mander - who is Israeli - announced that unlike Wikipedia's anonymous writers, Knol will feature signed articles. Another difference is that readers will not be able to edit Knol entries.

To Shankbone, these differences mean Knol is no competition. "Knol isn't open-source, it's not modifiable," he says, adding he hasn't had a chance to try out Knol's prototype beta version yet.

With only 60,000 entries, Wikipedia's Hebrew edition is still pretty small compared to the 390,000 entries in Dutch and 143,000 in Finnish, Shankbone says. "But Wikipedia in Hebrew and its news department is really burgeoning with hard-core volunteers who want to contribute."

According to Saranga, bringing Shankbone and the other reporters to Israel - in collaboration with the America-Israel Friendship League and the Conference of Presidents - is part of a new initiative by the New York Consulate General.

Saranga's team recently opened a blog for the State of Israel, a channel on YouTube and a page on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook.

The first order of business in rebranding Israel might well begin with David Shankbone's mother. According to her son, her first instructions upon learning he would be traveling here were not to ride the bus, not to go to Gaza and run if he saw anyone "praying to Allah and sweating."