a better wikipedia will require a better conversation 10.28.2005, 1:04 PM
posted by ben vershbow
There's an interesting discussion going on right now under Kim's Wikibooks post about how an open source model might be made to work for the creation of authoritative knowledge -- textbooks, encyclopedias etc. A couple of weeks ago there was some dicussion here about an article that, among other things, took some rather cheap shots at Wikipedia, quoting (very selectively) a couple of shoddy passages. Clearly, the wide-open model of Wikipedia presents some problems, but considering the advantages it presents (at least in potential) -- never out of date, interconnected, universally accessible, bringing in voices from the margins -- critics are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Holding up specific passages for critique is like shooting fish in a barrel. Even Wikipedia's directors admit that most of the content right now is of middling quality, some of it downright awful. It doesn't then follow to say that the whole project is bunk. That's a bit like expelling an entire kindergarten for poor spelling. Wikipedia is at an early stage of development. Things take time.
Instead we should be talking about possible directions in which it might go, and how it might be improved. Dan for one, is concerned about the market (excerpted from comments):
What I worry about...is that we're tearing down the old hierarchies and leaving a vacuum in their wake.... The problem with this sort of vacuum, I think, is that capitalism tends to swoop in, simply because there are more resources on that side....
...I'm not entirely sure if the world of knowledge functions analogously, but Wikipedia does presume the same sort of tabula rasa. The world's not flat: it tilts precariously if you've got the cash. There's something in the back of my mind that suspects that Wikipedia's not protected against this - it's kind of in the state right now that the Web as a whole was in 1995 before the corporate world had discovered it. If Wikipedia follows the model of the web, capitalism will be sweeping in shortly.
Unless... the experts swoop in first. Wikipedia is part of a foundation, so it's not exactly just bobbing in the open seas waiting to be swept away. If enough academics and librarians started knocking on the door saying, hey, we'd like to participate, then perhaps Wikipedia (and Wikibooks) would kick up to the next level. Inevitably, these newcomers would insist on setting up some new vetting mechanisms and a few useful hierarchies that would help ensure quality. What would these be? That's exactly the kind of thing we should be discussing.
The Guardian ran a nice piece earlier this week in which they asked several "experts" to evaluate a Wikipedia article on their particular subject. They all more or less agreed that, while what's up there is not insubstantial, there's still a long way to go. The biggest challenge then, it seems to me, is to get these sorts of folks to give Wikipedia more than just a passing glance. To actually get them involved.
For this to really work, however, another group needs to get involved: the users. That might sound strange, since millions of people write, edit and use Wikipedia, but I would venture that most are not willing to rely on it as a bedrock source. No doubt, it's incredibly useful to get a basic sense of a subject. Bloggers (including this one) link to it all the time -- it's like the conversational equivalent of a reference work. And for certain subjects, like computer technology and pop culture, it's actually pretty solid. But that hits on the problem right there. Wikipedia, even at its best, has not gained the confidence of the general reader. And though the Wikimaniacs would be loathe to admit it, this probably has something to do with its core philosophy.
Karen G. Schneider, a librarian who has done a lot of thinking about these questions, puts it nicely:
Wikipedia has a tagline on its main page: "the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit." That's an intriguing revelation. What are the selling points of Wikipedia? It's free (free is good, whether you mean no-cost or freely-accessible). That's an idea librarians can connect with; in this country alone we've spent over a century connecting people with ideas.
However, the rest of the tagline demonstrates a problem with Wikipedia. Marketing this tool as a resource "anyone can edit" is a pitch oriented at its creators and maintainers, not the broader world of users. It's the opposite of Ranganathan's First Law, "books are for use." Ranganathan wasn't writing in the abstract; he was referring to a tendency in some people to fetishize the information source itself and lose sight that ultimately, information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators; as a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users.
I think we are all in need of a good Wikipedia, since in the long run it might be all we've got. And I'm in now way opposed to its spirit of openness and transparency (I think the preservation of version histories is a fascinating element and one which should be explored further -- perhaps the encyclopedia of the future can encompass multiple versions of the "the truth"). But that exhilarating throwing open of the doors should be tempered with caution and with an embrace of the parts of the old system that work. Not everything need be thrown away in our rush to explore the new. Some people know more than other people. Some editors have better judgement than others. There is such a thing as a good kind of gatekeeping.
If these two impulses could be brought into constructive dialogue then we might get somewhere. This is exactly the kind of conversation the Wikimedia Foundation should be trying to foster.
K.G. Schneider on October 30, 2005 12:34 PM:
Wikipedia is "never out of date, interconnected, universally accessible, bringing in voices from the margins?" Well, two out of four ain't bad: it is universally accessible, if you ignore the search box on the lower left side of the page, and it's definitely interconnected, if by that you mean... well, what does that mean?
In terms of never being out of date, is that an evidence-driven statement? If I responded by fisking parts of Wikipedia, would I then be faulted for my "selective" critique?
As far as representing the margins, that too requires some evidence. Can you explain and defend that comment? When I do a search for the terms military women, "comfort women" shows up above anything related to women in the military, and the timeline for women's military history would be laughable if it didn't sear my feminist heart.
I realize I'm sounding grouchy (six days of travel can do that), and I should hone in on the comment about a vetting mechanism. But I don't know why this post tiptoes around the Wikipedia "community" when it seems to want to make the point that from the users' point of view, Wikipedia has a long way to go.
ben vershbow on October 30, 2005 5:45 PM:
On the two out of four point, I should have qualifed that list with "at least in potential" (and I just did above). I'm talking about the potential of Wikipedia, not where it's at now. By "interconnected" I mean simply that Wikipedia is a hypertext work. Take for example this paragraph from the rather slight entry on Marie Curie:
Over several years of unceasing labour they refined several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive components, and eventually isolated initially the chloride salts (refining radium chloride on April 20, 1902) and then two new chemical elements. The first they named polonium after Marie's native country, and the other was named radium from its intense radioactivity.
The words in bold represent hyperlinks to other Wikipedia entries, the goal being, seemingly, to make each article as densely linked as possible so the whole enormous thing is woven together. Of course, that would make it damn near unreadable. But still, do you dispute the usefulness of an encyclopedia (or whatever this thing is) whose parts are interconnected?
As for accessibility, you mention the search box to the side, and by that I take it you are referring to the lack of a central article index. I agree this is a problem. Wikipedia is quite a jumble. And regarding a more crucial sort of accessibility -- accessibility to people with print disabilities -- I'm not sure how Wikipedia is doing in terms of compliance with DAISY standards etc., but I can see on the Curie entry that they're starting to offer audio versions of articles (though these do not get updated with later revisions -- a big problem).
As for empowering the margins, I agree this is far more in the myth than in the reality. But it's a myth to be challenged and nurtured toward actualization. One thing I like about Wikipedia is that it's decentralized. If more folks from universities and libraries got involved, it would probably be a fairly democratic spread. (Incidentally, there is a librarians' project page, though it doesn't seem to be terribly active. Have you seen this?).
Going back to Wikibooks, it's interesting to see that someone has "wikified" the entire South African national curriculum, inviting the community to help fill it in with free course materials. While we in the West argue about authority and business models for Wkibooks, what if the rest of the world steps in and really carries it forward? This is much more interesting than the much vaunted "$100 Laptop" Project, because it focuses on building knowledge, not on shiny new toys, electronic manna from the wealthy nations, that supposedly will bring freedom to the world.
Gary Frost on October 30, 2005 5:47 PM:
A Better Wikipedia will require a print version. Contributors to the on-line version are addressing their topical interests and on-line users are induced to examine topical entries on their interests. Fine. Each participant is using the Wikipedia as a website excerpt but no reader is using it as if it is the 1911 Britannica.
What I mean is that Wikipedia may never comprise an encyclopedic work as such and if it ever did, no one would realize it. A print version would, for better or worse, establish Wikipedia as a cosmology of information and as a work presenting a state of knowledge.
A print version, however abbreviated or edited, would establish Wikipedia's status as an encyclopedic encyclopedia. That's what was done with Encarta. I recently discussed the same option with a foundation interested in providing a guideline for parents concerned to teach their children judgment in on-line searching. I said put it in print.
A print version will also solve the archival function, especially as it presents a precursor for a current on-line entry. More importantly, a print version will map the disciplinary reach of the Wikipedia, suggest its particular strengths and indicate directions for growth.
Best of all, it will take its rightful place physically beside the 1911 Britannica.
It's a two-way street. As print genres migrate to screen presentation some on-line works may well migrate back to print. That's part of the future of the book.
K.G. Schneider on October 30, 2005 7:36 PM:
On the search box, I was making an oblique (far too oblique) usability comment. Of all places recommended to put a search box, on the left and halfway down the page is not on the list. For that matter, the search engine, whatever it is, does not work too well, and people will want to search it. My point about the "comfort women" search is both about content and about relevance (search relevance, that is; returning the results you want).
I guess I was also being snide about the term "interconnectedness." Heck, I hope a Web resource would use hypertext links. :-) But that opens another can of worms. Have you spent a lot of time following the links in Wikipedia? I have, particularly in the area of history. It doesn't need the groaning weight of Library of Congress ontology (nor is that language designed for Web resources or for anything other than labeling books), but Wikipedia needs some kind of guiding hand, even automated.
On the other hand, I believe there is an area between the print encyclopedia and Wikipedia. I can certainly see an online encyclopedia where subject expertise played a role in weighting the relevance of items, and I can also see an online encyclopedia that updated itself on a far faster cycle than print media (while retaining some control over what gets published).
K.G. Schneider on October 30, 2005 7:41 PM:
On the issue of the library page on Wikipedia... I think most librarians looking for trustworthy sites for patrons don't use Wikipedia unless they are very familiar with a page and its editors (again, putting the burden on the user, in this case, the librarian-broker). I have met some ardent Wikipedian librarians-in-training, but I think it wears off when they graduate from library school and are in the position of making serious information decisions for patrons. On the question of library information, there are plenty of quality resources on the Web and elsewhere. You'd think there were enough ardent librarians to complete that section... I have a feeling they're all blogging. ;-) I can ask the question...
dave munger on October 31, 2005 9:35 AM:
Gary, I have to disagree with you on the idea of a print version of Wikipedia. No one uses print encyclopedias anymore. What's the point?
On that print versus online dichotomy, one thing I think Wikipedia could improve is its search feature. Generally you only find articles where your search term is in the title. What's the point of an online resource when you can only search it the same way you search a print text?
K.G. Schneider on November 1, 2005 4:30 PM:
I don't get why Wikipedia's search is so weak. It's got to be the primary means for its users to access its information (search logs can tell you whether people are searching or browsing). Plus it needs a spell-checker if it's going to be accessible to a wide community.
Gary Frost on November 1, 2005 9:30 PM:
Note that Wikipedia print is in the works.
Note also some of the rationale, obvious and ulterior. Its a two way street.
perwez safi on April 15, 2010 12:28 PM:
thank you but iwant the book to be better for consational skills