Wednesday, December 14, 2005

those who hate wikipedia

Wikipedia has come under fire recently after publishing seriously false information about John Seigenthaler: that he was involved in the murder of Robert Kennedy.

The information was published anonymously but then it took a long time to remove it (132 days) after Seigenthaler complained. Now Seigenthaler has an axe to grind and so does The Register.

In response to the (Seigenthaler) incident, Wales instituted a new policy preventing unregistered users from creating new articles on the English Wikipedia.

Some people use mistakes like this to condemn the whole wikipedia experiment.

One issue is understanding the strengths and limitations of wikipedia as a peer to peer, free on line source of information which calls itself an encyclopedia. IMO its strengths outweigh its limitations, I think it does very well.

Another issue is understanding why some people hate wikipedia and want to shut it down / destroy it in its present form. My guess would be that it is disruptive technology, it is changing the way we do things, that it is a threat to established interests. Those who think knowledge ought to be filtered by experts before being consumed by the "ignorant" masses.

But that is not the internet way. Filter then publish has been replaced with publish then filter. That is a big shift, one for the better, but one that takes some getting used to and initially mastering new technologies that do the necessary filtering for us.

Wikipedia is an imperfect filter but in the scheme of things - internet, knowledge explosion - it is a huge step forward.

There was a good discussion on slashdot about this, here are some abbreviated quotes:
I think that responsibility is the heart of this issue, and is why so many people get worked up about it. It's about who is to be assigned blame if wikipedia is inaccurate.

The author of the register article obviously wants the administrators of wikipedia to be held responsible, as if it was a top-down heirarchy. But it's not: it's more of a sort of p2p encyclopedia. It's not useful to blame wikipedia for being irresponsible any more than it is to blame gnutella for having illegal media on its network.

And the problem with attacking wikipedia and saying its not only useless, but it is harmful, is that it is not only attacking those people who spread disinformation. It is also attacking smart people who have a lot of worthwhile knowledge, and have carefully attempted to transfer this knowledge to an online medium that they knew people would use.
  • In fact, Wikipedia actually provides more (and more accessible) information on the revision history and editorial decisions leading to the present state of an article than any print encyclopedia I've ever heard of.
  • Wikipedia may not provide a strong or prominent enough disclaimer to suit you, but the obvious question would be: what does? TV news? The New York Times? Can you name a single "authoritative" source of information that either 1) Prominently disclaims their status as authoritative or 2) provides some substantive guarantee of the accuracy of the information?
  • link
Would we somehow be better off if Wikipedia didn't exist at all?
Despite some inaccuracies the Wikipedia is a veritable goldmine of useful information. What do the people who complain about it expect? An editor to peer review every single article? Wikipedia is probably the best model for a free encyclopedia that anyone has come up with and it's an amazing use of technology almost undreamt of a couple of decades ago. As long as we bear in mind how the entries are created (and it's not exactly a tough concept to grasp) how can it not be providing great benefit for people? The nay-sayers would put us back into the dark ages where we have to pay money for out-of-date information when there are people out there with the up-do-date facts who want to share them now for nothing. By all means don't keep the innacuracies a secret (because, among other things, that'll help to get them fixed), but there's no need for moral lectures unless you have a better alternative to propose. So I think your question is the right one to ask.
Unlike the Register itself Wikipedia is subject to a thousand year old form of analysis: Peer Review. If peer review is good enough for the scientific community (they put a man on the moon, the register has yet to accomplish that) and the medical community (they have done heart transplants, the Register has not) and the Linux Kernel, as any open source project, is subject to peer review (they have a very good perating system, the Register has yet to boot a machine) why would we not subject our historical data to such a process? Why not subject our media to such processes. Sadly it seems that the Register has the disease many younger Internet-generation kids have, a lack of patience. Peer review is slower, but as history moves on, faster
The real problem here is that the Wikipedia puports to be peer-reviewed, but each article has its subscribers, and it isn't clear whether an article has been tacitly approved by innumerable readers, or quietly corrupted out of salutary neglect. This ambiguity is the real failing of the Wikipedia, but it should be easily corrected by applying something similar to Slashdot Karma--just to show whether any editorial attention has affected any given article or not. ...

In the end, I think the Wikipedians are right. "The price of liberty is vigilance." The Register is also right. This is one thing that will happen if we're asleep at the wheel. However fiery the iconoclasty makes you feel, do we throw the baby out with the bathwater? No. We take what we have and make it better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Those who think knowledge ought to be filtered by experts before being consumed by the "ignorant" masses."

Yea, that would be nice. But the reality is that it is not a free forum, but worse then knowledge filtered through experts it is knowledge filtered by non-experts who get their jollies on enforceing arbitrary rules.

I make a change and it's vandalism you see. Or so the control freaks say.

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Carol said...

The previous commenter is sooo right. You have a person (or persons) who take control of one page. It's like they stalk that page all day and undo any changes made by others and label them as spam.

It's beyond annoying. It'd be nice just for wikipedia to be gone altogether. You can google and find sources of information just as quickly with having to deal with Wiki edit Nazis

1:51 PM  

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