Trouble in Wiki Land
October 24, 2005
The nonprofit Wikipedia Foundation's announcement last Thursday that it is launching a money-making joint venture with for-profit Answers.com has set off a storm of protest among contributors to the on-line, open-source encyclopedia. Many believe the commercial effort runs counter to the ideals of the vast Wikipedia community. "I feel utterly betrayed by the foundation," writes one Wikipedian on a discussion page at the site. "I will withdraw all and any support for the Wikipedia if this satanic project continues," writes another. A third asks: "Has the WikiVatican started selling indulgences?"
The rift comes at a time when the quality of the encyclopedia, which has long been held up as an example of the Internet's ability to harness "collective intelligence," is under debate (a debate set off by a critical post of mine earlier this month). The Register today runs a series of letters on Wikipedia from its readers. "While Wikipedia still has its defenders," the online journal writes, "there's a palpable relief that its shortcomings are finally being given the critical eye." The Guardian Unlimited, which a year ago called Wikipedia "one of the internet's most inspiring success stories," today ran a story headlined Can you trust Wikipedia? in which it asked experts to rate some of the encyclopedia's entries. The assessments ranged from "factually accurate" to "not terrible" to "inaccurate and unclear."
Even Web 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly, in a sharp retort to what he calls my "cynical rhetoric," can't quite bring himself to defend Wikipedia's quality. Instead, he tries to make a case that any criticism of the encyclopedia is somehow politically incorrect: "How can we castigate Wikipedia as flawed when our conservative television news services managed to persuade their viewers that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, and that evidence was found linking Saddam Hussein to the Al Quaida attacks on 9/11!" Now, that's a smokescreen if I ever saw one.
Ross Mayfield, another influential wiki-promoter, does rise to Wikipedia's defense, but only by redefining it as something other than an encyclopedia: "I know of no goal of being authoritative, but the group voice that emerges on a page with enough edits (not time) represents a social authority that provides choice for the media literate." Mayfield may not be aware of it, but the Wikipedia community has explicitly stated that one of its goals is to make the encyclopedia "the most authoritative source of information in the world." Its founder, Jimmy Wales, has also made it clear that he "intends that Wikipedia should achieve a 'Britannica or better' quality," according to Wikipedia's entry on itself. Also, I'm not aware of any attempts to restrict access to Wikipedia's content to what Mayfield calls, in a strange but perhaps revealing outburst of elitism, the "media literate."
Wikipedia wants itself to be judged as an encyclopedia, not as a "group voice [that] represents a social authority" (whatever that means). To fudge the issue and judge it as something other than an encyclopedia is, in my view, to be condescending toward the Wikipedians. It's also a way to avoid a hard discussion about the true nature of "collective intelligence" on the web.
This is a great article on collective intelligence:
Posted by: Nivi at October 25, 2005 01:56 AM
This is surprising news (maybe I'm just short sighted, though).
Posted by: Kaniaz at October 25, 2005 10:51 AM
I feel the flaws of Wikipedia pale in context of the opportunity the Web provides mature & educated individuals to confirm information they are seeking across numerous sources.
Your argument that Wikipedia's fundamental value is challengable because there are biased entries is arguing in a theoretical bubble. Your hype-detector is over-sensitively atuned.
Posted by: Sam Hiser at October 25, 2005 12:22 PM
Why you are protesting so much about wikiland? Sorry, but it comes across as just a little bit of journalistic whining about a new platform- wikis are just like websites - some good, some bad, most very useful, and all very inevitable.
Posted by: Lauren Elliott at October 25, 2005 06:59 PM
Just because Wikipedia is currently falling short of its goal to be an authoritative reference source doesn't mean that it won't become such. I'm sure there are many examples of bad references within the body, but I'm sure there are many examples of superior references as well. I would point to the coverage of natural disasters as far surpassing anything I've seen from encyclopedias and the daily media. If you look forward, extrapolate current trends and believe an optimistic view that the issues are solvable on the whole, then it's not difficult to understand why so many people are excited about the project.
Oh, and to defend Ross: when he says that Wikipedia has become a social authority, I believe that he is referencing the social construction of reality. In other words, if everyone in the world decides that all cups are spoons, then guess what? Cups are spoons. So wikipedia may well be an authoritative reference for millions of people. I think his second point illustrates that many of the people who currently use wikipedia are discerning enough to assess the content for potential flaws, just like yourself. So, he's not fudging the issue, he's just clarifying what role wikipedia currently plays in reference universe.
If you want to have a discussion about collective intelligence created through modern, innovative web collaboration tools, I would propose looking at Wikipedia as encountering an obstacle; an obstacle which may be overcome. Given the powerful minds and thinking that have produced the generation of technology and structures, I believe that solutions can be found.
I believe your role as critic in this process is invaluable. Group think can inhibit progression towards standards which are valuable to everyone. Throwing rocks at the hype clearly illustrates the current deficiencies. I agree that the level of quality standards in authorship has fallen somewhat with the democratization of authoring tools. However, that doesn't mean that solutions won't be innovated and that quality won't improve.
The flip side to this debate is that the rapid uptake of wikipedia may be a reaction against long-standing flaws inherent within traditional media production processes. A case can be made that traditional media spends an inordinate amount of time on formatting and style when they should focus on content and facts. I personally have experienced too many examples of traditional media pushing messages that are wholly inaccurate and farcical. I believe it's clear that there is a frustration with the old media's inability to deliver the information and analysis needed to serve the public's wants.
For instance, I would point to the fact that most business journalists have degrees in journalism but not business. How then do they find the ability to write authoritatively about topics such as the appropriateness of option expenses? They often utilize sources that have an agenda to help them form their opinions but are not able to layer any critical thinking on top because of a lack of training and experience in the subject matter.
So, it seems to me that we're experiencing a division along a couple of axis between traditional media and new collaborative information sources. As it stands now, traditional media has an advantage in terms of historical style methods and fact-checking.
My only question is: What happens to the traditional media if collaborative web efforts improve significantly along the 'quality' dimension?
Posted by: Jake at October 25, 2005 07:14 PM
Does the great tendency in the online arena to equate free-as-in-beer with virtue, and making money (even, as in this case, for a non-profit foundation) with a "fallen" state of sin, strike others as extremely naive? It certainly does me.
Posted by: Jud at October 25, 2005 10:05 PM
I wouldn't compare Wikipedia to (traditional) media, if that term referms to journalism: an encyclopedia is not (yet) journalism (but it may become so, who knows). On the other hand, an encyclopedia has usually a team which is competent in all the domains it wishes to cover, and an editorial control mechanism (though it may fail, as any human enterprise) meant to ensure uniformity, quality and coverage.
Posted by: Miklos at October 26, 2005 10:50 AM
Wikipedia's big problem stems from politics. The sooner they realize that and weed out the political crap, the better off they will be. Facts and truths are not to be politically biased, nor are to be issued in versions.
Posted by: bill at October 27, 2005 10:20 AM
Reminder 1 : Wikimedia Foundation is a non-profit organisation.
Reminder 2 : The GFDL licence (ruling Wikipedia) allows all form of use of the content of Wikipedia, even commercial.
A large majority of community members are ok with agreements with commercial companies, as done before with Yahoo.
Posted by: Traroth at October 31, 2005 04:27 AM
I suspect you willl enjoy the anti-wikipedia: http://www.uncyclopedia.org/wiki/Main_Page
Posted by: Rajesh at November 11, 2005 07:10 PM
i'm with the guy that said it's naive to think free=good, money=evil.
Posted by: markmayhew at December 23, 2006 10:59 AM
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