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Experts go home

January 24, 2007

There's a bit of a ruckus today about a guy from Microsoft offering to pay an independent expert on the Open Office XML document format to edit Wikipedia's allegedly flawed entry on the subject. The Microsoft guy, who was acting alone, goofed in offering payment, but otherwise seems to have acted in an aboveboard fashion. He made no attempt to hide the offer, and the expert was free to write anything he wanted. Nevertheless, Microsoft has been painted as offering bribes to get its views into Wikipedia. Scott Karp and John Paczkowski deftly put the story into perspective.

What I found interesting was the response of Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales:

Wales said the proper course would have been for Microsoft to write or commission a "white paper" on the subject with its interpretation of the facts, post it to an outside Web site and then link to it in the Wikipedia articles' discussion forums.

That's kind of an odd suggestion from "the encyclopedia that anyone can edit." It seems like we're getting to the point where anyone who has gained deep enough knowledge of a subject to have developed a point of view on it will be unwelcome to edit Wikipedia. Experts, automatically considered suspect, will be forced to go through some parody of a traditional editorial process.


Your post finally put it all into perspective for me. Everything I read about Wikipedia seemed to encourage anyone to edit entries, but I couldn’t understand why it was always an issue when anyone who seemed to have “expert” knowledge on the subject was considered to have a bias. Your blog makes total sense!

Posted by: Valerie at January 24, 2007 05:35 PM

The proper course would have been for Microsoft to put up a page saying how clueless Wikipedia was about something.

Then someone else could have used it as a citation at Wikipedia....

Posted by: Skip McCoy, American at January 24, 2007 06:07 PM


Exactly! I have just been writing about how Wikipedia is moving away from the "wisdom of crowds". As long as anyone could make edits (which was very true not very long ago), the entries had a tendency to converge towards the mean, yielding high accuracy. But now that volunteer editors are beginning to exercise significant editorial control, it gets progressively harder for new changes or unique perspectives to get in.

I've compared some of the successful implementations of collective intelligence in my post. This is an unfortunate trend: first Digg lost its democratic roots, when some user votes became more equal than others; now Wikipedia is making editing difficult. It appears that we have not yet found the appropriate software framework/algorithms to make true collective intelligence a reality.

Posted by: NitinK at January 25, 2007 12:00 AM

"Wikipedia - the encyclopedia where anyone can reject your edits."

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin at January 25, 2007 02:44 AM

On a second thought anyone can edit Wikipedia (as an editor), it's just not everyone who is welcome to write for it.

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin at January 25, 2007 02:48 AM

"the entries had a tendency to converge towards the mean, yielding high accuracy."

The problem Wikipedia has is that the entries converge towards the mean *of what is available on Google* - which is not always the best information or evidence available on a topic.

Once a subject becomes complex enough, especially if there are conflicting interests involved, just "splitting the difference" between points of view is never going to produce a sensible entry.

My uninformed suspicion is that Microsoft's Office XML format is not really a genuine attempt at an open standard. Wikipedia realised this, so Microsoft wants to "split the difference" to water down the article.

This is a common tactic in corporate communications. Let's say someone expresses the viewpoint "the scientific evidence suggests we need to cut carbon dioxide emissions dramatically", opposing interests make sure that they have someone saying "some scientists don't agree - let's split the difference by having weak carbon controls" - and they'll always do this regardless of how strong the evidence is.

Posted by: Ben H at January 25, 2007 08:15 AM

The title of this post says it all (it comes directly from an exchange with a Wikipedia editor). (More background in the comments to this post on my blog.) Authority hasn't been abolished on Wikipedia, just redefined.

Posted by: Phil at January 25, 2007 08:20 AM

There is a constituency of Wikipedians who take deep offense to any suggestion of expertise, and make it hot for those that come, and tedious for those who stick around for awhile.

Some experts have been given such a poor welcome at Wikipedia, (because the were experts) that they have left in weeks, generally without saying why. Only those who were privy to the events saw it happen.

Posted by: DV82XL at January 25, 2007 08:41 AM

From what I've read about Wikipedia, especially discussions between Wikipedia people, there is a significant social movement involved, linked to stamping out the notion of experts. Experts are equated to the term "elitists" in the Wikipedia community. A popular argument in such discussions goes as follows: that no-one is an expert as so-called experts have sometimes been shown to be wrong. Experts must "compete" with non-experts to have their views accepted. As the editors can gang up on an expert (the hidden agenda being that experts are elitists and should be stamped out), experts can be given short shrift. Experts must be prepared to be treated just like a non-expert. However, in fact, experts are treated with some suspicion.

Wikipedia is a social movement with an agenda to stamp out the notion of experts - and expertise. The agenda allows unqualified "informal experts" (eg students) to "show" that they are the knowledgeable ones and are equal to, if not better than, so-called "experts" (in that domain). Can people not see that there is a social movement afoot, linked to anti-elitism, which has quickly morphed to anti-experteeism (and anti-experts)?

Posted by: Sharman at January 29, 2007 09:08 AM

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