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Our new Delphic oracle

August 10, 2006

In a pithy post-Wikimania post, Dave Winer notes the "disconnect" between Wikipedia's "promoters and the people who do the work." The disconnect, he points out, complicates assessments of the motley encyclopedia's attempts to enhance its quality. What's the definition of quality, and who's defining it? "It's a very slippery subject, but an important one," says Winer, "because Wikipedia pages rank so high on the web. If they didn't, there would hardly be a reason to discuss. In the web before Wikipedia, every point of view had a chance, but Wikipedia tends toward centralization, toward one or two views prevailing ..."

Much has been made about the upward creep of Wikipedia entries in search engine results, but there hasn't yet been much discussion about what this "centralization" means. Just to double-check the phenomenon, I wrote a list, off the top of my head, of ten important and various topics to see how highly Wikipedia's entries would rank on Google. Here are the results:

World War II: #1
Israel: #1
George Washington: #4
Genome: #9
Agriculture: #6
Herman Melville: #3
Internet: #5
Magna Carta: #2
Evolution: #3
Epilepsy: #6

That's pretty striking, and I bet that most Wikipedia entries are continuing to move upward - and many will, like "World War II," come to reach the top spot. In the not too distant future, we may be living in a world where the default source of information about, well, pretty much everything will be a single and not altogether reliable amateur reference work.

When critics point out the flaws in Wikipedia, its defenders are quick to respond, "It's only an encyclopedia; you don't use an encyclopedia as your only source." And that used to be true. In fact, after high school few people used encyclopedias at all, at least not regularly. But now, I'm not so sure. I'd wager that a heck of a lot of people searching the web do in fact use Wikipedia as their first and sole source, or at least their major source. (Just because you think people should consult a lot of different information sources doesn't mean that they're actually going to.) As Winer suggests, Wikipedia's dominance over search results may be subtly shifting the nature of the web as an information source, moving it from heterogeneity toward homogeneity. He's right: It is an important, and slippery, subject.

UPDATE: Tom Lord continues the discussion.

UPDATE: More here.

Comments

I thought one of the knocks you had on Wikipedia was the lack of homogenity, all the many different contributors filling it, with no centralized editorial oversight. That it's not a single source, but a composite of information drawn from "...thousands of diligent contributors." What happened?

Posted by: Scott Wilson [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2006 11:35 PM

Good work not linking to Wikipedia in this post. As you know, it's all of these fabulous inbounds (from supporters and haters alike) that are driving Wikipedia up the SERPS.

Posted by: lorenzinho [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 01:22 AM

If Wikipedia was going to be ten out of ten of the top search results, that might be a problem. But one out of ten? Hardly homogeneity, is it?

Posted by: Ben King [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 06:19 AM

This statement is total nonsense: "In the web before Wikipedia, every point of view had a chance, but Wikipedia tends toward centralization, toward one or two views prevailing ...".

For a start, although Wikipedia is run as a centralised service, it's editorship is distributed web-wide. Virtually anyone can edit any page. Just *one person* has control over roughtype.com, one person has control over scripting.com, yet anyone can change http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Carr or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dave_Winer

More fundamentally - "In the web before Wikipedia, every point of view had a chance" - how has the arrival of Wikipedia blocked points of view? If anything it's added to the discussion forums.

Which individual points of view predominate depend on how you navigate the web. Most people use Google search, increasingly blog subscription services are (re)introducing a kind of directory access. Through both approaches, you'll find an awful lot of A-list bloggers (generally obsessed with the commercial aspects of the web, and largely California-centric).

It's probably also worth remembering that Winer himself is notorious for promoting his own world view, e.g. his history of RSS is interesting less for the information it contains, more for what it leaves out.

Posted by: Danny Ayers [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 08:05 AM

Scott, The multitude of contributors is a problem when it comes to maintaining a consistent level of quality (though it's a strength when it comes to breadth of entries), but that's a different issue from Wikipedia as a single source. The individual points of view of those contributors are lost in the anonymous Wikipedia soup. Jaron Lanier talked about this effect in hsi essay "Digital Maoism."

Ben, Fair point, but holding the #1 position on Google is a very powerful spot. It is quite a shift from the historical pattern of the web to see a single source be at the top or near the top for such a very broad range of searches. And I continue to believe, like Winer, that it's worth thinking about. One interesting aspect of this phenomenon, which I didn't mention in the post, is that it begins to reveal how we define "good enough" when it comes to information sources. Maybe Wikipedia is best thought of as, say, the Microsoft Word of knowledge.

Danny, I think "total nonsense" is inaccurate, though you make good counterpoints. Still, I believe that "centralization" is a fair description, given the contrast with what we've seen up to now on the Net.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 08:28 AM

If Wikipedia was consistently the number #1 result, why bother using Google? I'm pretty sure Google doesn't like that. Some objective reason will suddenly pop up to give certain types of links less credits, and Wikipedia drop in the rankings.

Posted by: Filip Verhaeghe [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 09:18 AM

And that used to be true. In fact, after high school few people used encyclopedias at all, at least not regularly. But now, I'm not so sure. I'd wager that a heck of a lot of people searching the web do in fact use Wikipedia as their first and sole source, or at least their major source.

Nick, you continue to attribute bad habits by users/readers to faults in the source they are reading or the medium they are using.

As I said in my reply to your previous post: why is the failure of students or even adults to practise proper research techniques not the fault of bad education? If it is easier now to cut corners, do we just give up training people to read critically? Do we just complain (often) of about the state we are in, or do we hunker down and make those long needed changes to our eduction systems?

Posted by: Steven [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 09:28 AM

If you ponder the social impact of Wikipedia's high search rankings you should also ponder (as I have) the impact of including a snapshot of Wikipedia articles with one laptop per child machines.

-t

Posted by: Tom Lord [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 01:24 PM

Tom,

Very interesting post. Thanks.

Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 11, 2006 02:54 PM

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