Using the back and forth of a wikipedia article to get closer to the truth 02.06.2009, 7:43 AM
posted by bob stein
When Jaron Lanier disparaged the Wikipedia in his 2006 essay on "the hazards of the new online collectivism" I wrote an impassioned defense including our oft-mentioned point that the most interesting thing about wikipedia articles, especially controversial ones is not necessarily what's on the surface, but the back and forth underneath.
Jaron misunderstands the Wikipedia. In a traditional encyclopedia, experts write articles that are permanently encased in authoritative editions. The writing and editing goes on behind the scenes, effectively hiding the process that produces the published article. The standalone nature of print encyclopedias also means that any discussion about articles is essentially private and hidden from collective view. The Wikipedia is a quite different sort of publication, which frankly needs to be read in a new way. Jaron focuses on the "finished piece", ie. the latest version of a Wikipedia article. In fact what is most illuminative is the back-and-forth that occurs between a topic's many author/editors. I think there is a lot to be learned by studying the points of dissent; indeed the "truth" is likely to be found in the interstices, where different points of view collide. Network-authored works need to be read in a new way that allows one to focus on the process as well as the end product.
Recently a group of researchers at Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox Parc) announced that they have created a prototype of a tool called "wikidashboard" which they hope will help reveal the back and forth beneath wiki articles in a way that will help readers get closer to the truth of a matter. in their own words:
"Because the information [the back and forth history of a wiikipedia artilcle] is out there for anyone to examine and to question, incorrect information can be fixed and two disputed points of view can be listed side-by-side. In fact, this is precisely the academic process for ascertaining the truth. Scholars publish papers so that theories can be put forth and debated, facts can be examined, and ideas challenged. Without publication and without social transparency of attribution of ideas and facts to individual researchers, there would be no scientific progress."
Posted by bob stein on February 6, 2009 7:43 AM
Rachel Lee on February 6, 2009 8:44 AM:
Alan Liu makes a similar point about the importance of editorial activity on Wikipedia in a talk he gave at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (2008). He demonstrated some interesting data visualization as a way to make sense of extended editorial discussions, where the most active parts of discussion can stand out visually, and users can get this information quickly, with just a glance. Video of his talk is here:
Robert Nagle on February 12, 2009 10:54 PM:
Unfortunately W's anti-spam policy and the notability requirement limit the usefulness of the articles (especially for literary topics).If we looked under the hood, I think we would merely see deletionists having their way.
Wikipedia is useful for finding out information which is verifiable (and found in some commercially maintained databases). That means birth dates, death dates, colleges attended, ISBN numbers, awards, etc. It is minimally useful for acknowledging controversy about a topic. Wikipedia is semi-competent for providing overviews of laws and physical sciences. Wikipedia is now inadequate in identifying notable people, notable ideas, notable works of art. It is also inadequate in assessing value of a contributed link. It also is inadequate at handling independent media or in documenting phenomenon of no economic value. The need to have “notability” and “reliability” causes Wikipedia to trust known commercial media sources more than unknown ones. That is a bias which ultimately will limit Wikipedia’s usefulness and cause lesser known encyclopedias to be more informative and insightful.