Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wikipedia's hidden information

The Sunday New York Times has a feature on Wikipedia today. At risk of making myself sound subcultural, the Times gets it: "Wikipedia is built with unending scrutiny and ceaseless editing." (And the reporter occasionally seems impressed with the content.) But as usual, I disagree with stuff. Quotes and counterpoint:

Wikipedia's reputation and internal editorial process would benefit by having a single authority vouch for the quality of a given article...Once upon a time, Encyclopaedia Britannica recruited Einstein, Freud, Curie, Mencken and even Houdini as contributors. The names helped the encyclopedia bolster its credibility. Wikipedia, by contrast, provides almost no clues for the typical article by which reliability can be appraised.

1. I agree, Wikipedia content should be vetted. This should happen soon, and it should happen outside Any organization can take the content for free, vet it, and republish it (again, for free). (I sure as hell wish Digital Universe was devoting itself to that instead of writing incompatably licenced content in a propriatary format that my mac can't open. Update: Larry Sanger has responded in the comments.)

2. Wikipedia articles provide an abundance of informal cues that other media lack, cues that can seem unprofessional on first glance. For example, the USA Today article's main image shows (without adjacent comment) the paper's mining-headline gaffe. Since the pupose of the picture is to illustrate the paper, platonically, wouldn't a more neutral photo be better? Yes, but I'm not about to shoot one -- which is precisely the point: nobody cares much about USA Today; it doesn't have any advocates*. (Brittannica won't tell you that.) (Compare with the Times.) This plays into the next point:

The egalitarian nature of a system that accords equal votes to everyone in the "community" — middle-school student and Nobel laureate alike — has difficulty resolving intellectual disagreements.

Wikipedia is an adhocracy, not a democracy: that is, everyone has the same number of votes, but that number is unlimited (if your edits are civil, human-generated, and not simple reverts). This has its advantages and drawbacks, but to cut to the quick, social interaction is a better metaphor than voting. As in real life, middle-school wikipedians usually don't care as much about the Krebs cycle as Nobel laureates do, and they tend to be less persuasive.

"Several recent events have shown how anyone can tamper with someone else's entry. Congressional staff members have been unmasked burnishing articles about their employers and vandalizing those of political rivals. (Sample addition: "He likes to beat his wife and children.")"

An addition that jarring makes good newspaper copy, but is also "evolutionarily unfit", so to speak, in the wikipedia soup: the article doesn't mention that that edit was undone immedately (or at all), a detail it neglects several more times.

Anonymous Source is Not the Same as Open Source

1. If that's rephrased less glibly, I agree: there are huge differences between Wikipedia and Linux, for example, because (a) compared to people, computers really suck at parsing text, and (b) most people can't program, but most people can write.

2. Many contributors to standard open source projects are anonymous. They're judged by their contributions.

When asked what problems on the site he viewed as most pressing, Mr. Wales said he was concerned with passing along the Wikipedian culture to newcomers.

Yep. But it seems to be going well so far.

* USA Today doesn't have any serious detractors, either, so the pic will probably change within a year. (If it was at the center of a controversy it wouldn't have lasted a day.) This type of informal information bubbles up all over. Warren and Livonia are both suburbs of Detroit, but Livonians don't think of themselves that way.


Larry Sanger said...

Re this line: "I sure as hell wish Digital Universe was devoting itself to that instead of writing incompatably licenced content in a propriatary format that my mac can't open."

We at the Digital Universe have heard the same loud and clear from others, and we are doing something about it. Within a few months we will be launching a "browser-neutral" version of the Digital Universe--essentially, a specially-designed website that emulates most the behavior and functionality of the browser. So it will work, of course, on Mac and Linux systems.

As for using a compatible license, while it is true that we will be using (or recommending to our independent content partners) a Creative Commons license, Lawrence Lessig, who is on our Board of Advisors, has told us that there are definite movements afoot to make the GNU FDL backwards compatible with an Attribution-ShareAlike2.5 CC license. But, quite frankly, we believe we will be able to create an excellent resource quickly even if we start over from scratch. After all, Wikipedia has taken only five years to get where it is now.

Moreover, in a recent Board of Directors meeting, there was a decision actually to start expanding the DU's content programs. It's an exciting time for us.

Ben Yates said...

Thanks for responding (I feel like I've written an op ed and found Clinton standing at my door.)

Bully for the browser-neutrality, though I wish it had been built in from the get-go. (Aside: How human readable and editable will your graphics systems be?)

As for creating a resource from scratch: I hope you're right, and it'll be fun to follow what happens (as soon as that neutral version comes out ...). There should be a diverse (and therefore robust) ecosystem of wikipedia-style systems, though it remains to be seen whether wikipedia stumbled onto some sort of cultural magic bullet. (Probably didn't.) It'll be difficult to replicate its growth, regardless. Wikinfo, etc. Wikipedia is growing so fast right now that I think the most successful projects will be the ones that latch onto its coattails.