Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 1: January 2009


Net Media

Wikipedia Notes

It’s been a while since we discussed Wikipedia, its competitors and structure. I had four clusters of wiki-related items to discuss—items about Wikipedia itself, Wikia Search and other Wikia stuff, Knol and Citizendium. Now that I’ve gone through Wikipedia items, I see the rest will have to wait (and Knol might or might not be worth discussing in a few more months).

My Own Bias

Here’s a brief version of how I feel about Wikipedia.

       I use Wikipedia without hesitation for most pop culture, geographic/statistical, current technology and trivia questions—and frequently as a starting point for other queries.

       I do not trust Wikipedia to have consistently fair, objective or neutral-viewpoint articles because I know better, and know enough about some subjects to verify my doubts.

       I do not believe Wikipedia essays inherently get better and better because of more and more edits. I don’t believe Wikipedia articles generally come close to the quality of signed essays by experts. I believe the Wikipedia methodology pushes against the kind of narrative flow and polish seen in really good introductory essays, except when the topic’s obscure enough to avoid edit wars and other Wikipedia phenomena.

       I believe Wikipedia is a remarkable combined effort—but I do not believe it’s a model for hundreds or thousands of similar efforts. “Crowdsourcing” is a tricky field. Some problems are evident in the sheer amount of axe-grinding in IMDB reviews (for example). The notion that millions (billions?) of hours will be devoted to such efforts that were formerly spent watching TV is absurd on at least two counts: First, it makes the false assumption that people are watching less TV (they’re splitting TV time among more channels, but current reports show more time spent watching); second, it assumes people will do intellectually challenging work in time formerly spent being a couch potato. Sure they will.

       I’ve made a couple of edits in Wikipedia. I don’t plan to make many more. Between deletionists, the various levels of edit bureaucrats and the increasingly stifling requirement that Every Single Fact be Footnoted in a “proper” way—I have better things to do with my limited energy.

       I like Tim Spalding’s comment in a July 15, 2008 Thingology post. He’s describing the oft-edited article on Alexander the Great and says this (my favorite note boldfaced): “[The article], for example, has seen periodic, bitter warfare on national or sexual grounds and, although randomly wonderful, with extensive hyperlinking and some exceptional tidbits, has never grown into a decent summary. It’s lumpy, unbalanced, poorly written and poorly sourced—a bright fourteen year-old child sitting next to you on a bus, telling you everything he knows. Parts are good. Parts are bad. Parts are just off somehow—their correction requiring un-Wikipedia-esque virtues like restraint, proportionality and style. At one point I watched it closely and made substantial edits. I’ve moved on. In my opinion, if the Wiki culture and process were going to produce a good article on Alexander, they would have done so already.”

       Now look back at the first bullet. I do not despise, dislike or disdain Wikipedia. I have mixed feelings about Jimbo Wales, but Wales isn’t Wikipedia. One advantage of being obscure (outside the library field) is that I don’t have an entry in Wikipedia (at least not in the U.S. edition). I’d just as soon keep it that way.

Verifiability, Not Truth

Start with a comment (noted by Seth Finkelstein in a February 10, 2008 Infothought post) from Florence Devouard, chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, parent organization of Wikipedia:

I will not edit the article any more. My concern has been stated: the policy “verifiability, not truth” is stupid.

That requires context. “The article” in question is the “Wikia” article in Wikipedia, and this immediate comment is preceded on the discussion page by:

You have a clear conflict of interest—please refrain from editing the article and rather inform editors of your concerns here.

The dispute has to do with the relationship between Wikia—a for-profit venture-capital-backed startup—and Wikimedia Foundation, a nonprofit. Or, rather, the lack of such connection. You’d have to read the page yourself (noting that Devouard’s username is “Anthere”) but, as Finkelstein notes, the most cogent section is this:

I’ll drop the matter for now, but I feel greatly the frustration of all those who have biographies in Wikipedia about them, when the biography states something hugely false about them, and they can not get the error to be corrected, because the burden of proof relies on them to prove that the editors are wrong. If something kills Wikipedia one day, it will be precisely this. The inability to admit that something is wrong, unless the contrary is mentioned in the mainpress. The press does not care about stating something correct. There will never be a New York Times article with headlines such as “Breaking news: Wikia and Wikimedia Foundation are truly separate organizations !” I would be glad that you join the dozen of editors…who need to contact press over and over and over again, to ask them to correct the title saying “Wikipedia launches a search engine.” Requesting corrections over and over again is mostly due to the confusion between the two companies, and next time you see such [errors], appreciate you played an active part in the confusion.

The key issue here: By policy, Wikipedia prefers “verifiability” (something printed in a “reputable” publication) to the facts—if the facts aren’t backed up by “verifiability.”

Or does it? Apparently there’s an exception, based on this February 13, 2008 addition:

This is just to let you know that material that’s self-published by Wikia e.g. a press release, or a statement on its website, is allowed to be used as a source in the article. The policy allows self-published material that was written by the subject of the article—with some restrictions, which are listed here—and as that part of the article directly concerns the Foundation, a press release from the Foundation would be acceptable too.

There seems to be an edit war on the “Verifiability” page, so I’m loath to claim what it actually says about a person or group’s ability to verify their own claims. It’s certainly an interesting approach, particularly given the difficulty of demonstrating that a press release was ever used by (or released to) the press: Once you’ve been mentioned, somehow, in “the press,” you can verify whatever you want by issuing your own statements. Did I mention that I’m actually Archduke of Stanislaus County? (Hey, Cites & Insights has been mentioned in reputable print publications, disreputable as it may itself be—and I’ve been mentioned as its editor and publisher.)

As I understand that Talk item, because mainstream press mentioned Wikia, Wikia can now verify whatever facts about itself it wishes—and anyone disputing those facts bears the burden of proving such a dispute by citing mainstream media. That sounds semi-plausible for biographical entries of living persons—you should be a preferred provider of facts about yourself unless there’s evidence countering those facts—but I’m not so sure about organizations and movements and the like. Should GM or, say, AIG be able to say anything it chooses about itself and have it accepted as fact by Wikipedia, while claims that run counter to GM’s or AIG’s statements have to be backed up by mainstream publications?

Wikipedia’s Growing Pains

That’s the title on Marcus Banks’ March 20, 2008 post at Marcus’ world, but I could as easily title this section “The charms of Wikipedia”—the title on Nicholson Baker’s review of Wikipedia: The Missing Manual in the March 20, 2008 New York Review of Books. Banks links to Baker, provides a summary and adds his own comments.

Baker’s review is charming. Even when he’s saying fundamentally unsound things, Baker is a clever writer. Clearly, Wikipedia fascinates him and he finds the whole thing rather marvelous. He also offers an interesting extended metaphor for the “deletionist” issue:

[W]hen people did help they were given a flattering name. They weren’t called “Wikipedia’s little helpers,” they were called “editors.” It was like a giant community leaf-raking project in which everyone was called a groundskeeper. Some brought very fancy professional metal rakes, or even back-mounted leaf-blowing systems, and some were just kids thrashing away with the sides of their feet or stuffing handfuls in the pockets of their sweatshirts, but all the leaves they brought to the pile were appreciated. And the pile grew and everyone jumped up and down in it having a wonderful time. And it grew some more, and it became the biggest leaf pile anyone had ever seen anywhere, a world wonder. And then self-promoted leaf-pile guards appeared, doubters and deprecators who would look askance at your proffered handful and shake their heads, saying that your leaves were too crumpled or too slimy or too common, throwing them to the side. And that was too bad. The people who guarded the leaf pile this way were called “deletionists.”

At which point, as an old Ken Nordine “Word Jazz” fan, I hear the line “So how are things in your town?” in my mind—but you’d need way too much context to make that association work. (The track is “Flibberty jib.” You can buy the CD—The Best of Word Jazz, Volume One. Nordine is brilliant, in my opinion.)

Working my way back from that digression, there’s some entertaining stuff in Baker’s 4,700 word “book review” (that would be six or seven C&I pages). (Not to digress again—well, yes, after all, distraction/digression and Wikipedia go hand in hand—but that made me wonder how long Nicholson Baker’s own entry in Wikipedia is. Including bibliography and footnotes, around 2,100 words; the article itself, about 1,500 words—including, to be sure, a paragraph on this book review, presumably because it’s about a book about Wikipedia and Wikipedia is nothing if not self-referential.)

Nicholson says Wikipedia “worked and grew because it tapped into the heretofore unmarshaled energies of the uncredentialed.” He points out that Wikipedia “had a head start” because it could, legally, import articles from the 1911 “scholar’s edition” of the Britannica, now in the public domain—and from a variety of other public domain sources. Baker discusses the addictivity of Wikipedia editing—and of staying vigilant lest your work be undone. (As he notes, the easiest way to avoid vandalism—or, for that matter, to insert nonsense into Wikipedia—is to go for the obscure.)

I have to admit that Baker’s description of some particular edit wars seems to amuse him more than it does me—but he does say “This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you,” particularly if you hit it between vandalism and reversal. (He cites the article about James Bryant Conant, which for seventeen minutes consisted of “HES A BIG STUPID HEAD.”)

Did I mention this is a book review? About two-thirds of the way through, Baker mentions the book. There’s a 400-word section relating directly to the book. That out of the way, Baker moves on to his own experience as “Wageless” on Wikipedia. He gets involved in a deletion issue regarding a minor poet and starts to turn into a general-purpose anti-deletionist. (By Baker’s standards, I should definitely be in Wikipedia!) He spends a fair amount of text on deletionism, notability purges and all that.

The sad part of reading Baker’s article—other than demonstrating the ease with which Baker goes entirely gaga on a subject—is that I did look him up on Wikipedia, then read about his latest book…and find that any respect I might have had for the man is gone, replaced by a general feeling of revulsion. Nothing to do with his feelings about libraries; a lot to do with that book.

Pulling back one layer, Marcus Banks is also anti-deletionist:

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. There are no page or length restrictions in the Wikipedia (obviously), so who am I to judge what should matter to you?

The healthy side of Wikipedia regulation manifests itself whenever people delete silly or unfactual edits within individual articles… But the mood these days is much more sinister. Baker quotes Andrew Lih:  “The preference now is for excising, deleting, restricting information rather than letting it sit there and grow.”

There is a bright side, thank goodness. Those worried about the Wikipedia censors can join the awkwardly named Wikiproject Proposed Deletion Patrolling project. This is a splinter faction within the Wikipedia community; anyone can resist the notability purges and spur the Wikipedia to hew closer to its original spirit.

To the cyber-barricades, I say—the more articles about Pokemon, the better!

I tend to agree that deleting relatively “unimportant” articles seems a little silly in Wikipedia and that the standard for notability for living persons might best be tempered by a general policy that, barring obvious public fame, any living person can request that their biography be removed. Otherwise—well, who’s notable? What’s notable? Why is notability an issue? If Wikipedia had a table of contents or index, you could argue that it needs limits—but it doesn’t, at least not in any serious sense.

Which leads me to…

The Power of the Wikipedia Editor

This April 17, 2008 post by Michael Pate at LibraryPlanet.com makes a strong statement, one that people who celebrate Wikipedia should consider. He cites two versions of a Wikipedia piece and the revision history. He then quotes a global warming skeptic who is outraged by the edits being made—edits that deprecate (or eliminate) doubts of global warming.

What’s happened to the article does seem strange—even stranger if you look at the current version (as of December 3, 2008 at 3:45 p.m. PST), where the whole controversy seems to have disappeared entirely. I am also aware of other cases in which active editors seem to have maintained a singular point of view and managed to justify it as being “NPOV.” But it also looks like the person making the complaint is not just a global warming skeptic but a Global Warming Denier—one who claims far more scientific disagreement about global warming than most of the record shows and seems to show up in right-wing periodicals more than elsewhere. (Wikipedia doesn’t cast lots of doubt on evolution within its “Evolution” article either, I believe appropriately—but it does link from that article to “Evolution as theory and fact,” which does discuss the “controversy.”)

On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with Pate’s last two paragraphs:

In this case, it doesn’t even matter to me who is wrong or right. What is way more disturbing is the denial that there is any controversy and the systematic manipulation to suppress any mention of it.

As long as Wikipedia is subject to the whim of the individual editors who are willing to not only delete things they disagree with but lock out furthering editing to ensure they retain control, Wikipedia will remain nothing more than a group wiki for a tightly-constrained oligarchy.

But let’s go back to August 2007…

Rise of the Wikicrats

That’s Nicholas Carr’s title for an August 23, 2007 post at Rough type with this first paragraph:

It’s over. The Deletionists won.

Carr cites Andrew Lih’s July 10, 2007 post “Unwanted: New articles in Wikipedia” (www.andrewlih. com/blog/)—and notes that Lih is a “long-time Wikipedian” (editor since 2003, an admin with more than 10,000 edits). Some of Lih’s post:

That’s a pretty provocative headline. I don’t usually do provocative headlines. But Wikipedia has undergone such a dramatic culture shift of late that it merits wider attention.

It may seem like a trivial gripe—should we care about the battle over what stays or goes in this online encyclopedia. But it’s an indication there’s trouble in Wikipedia’s community and its collective soul. Given how many people now depend on the project worldwide, it’s a problem that needs to be recognized as a threat that could starve Wikipedia long term.

In my previous post, Wikipedia Plateau, I wondered—what was happening in English Wikipedia that would cause a massive drop in new article creation?

Lots of people chimed in, with over a dozen thoughtful comments. I didn’t really buy most of the explanations. New article creation restrictions in December 2005 didn’t make sense as a reason for an October 2006 drop.

It’s clear an emergent community phenomenon was affecting new articles. And I found something startling—articles like [[Pownce]] and [[Michael Getler]], about new and old topics alike, were equally hit by this new contagion. The fate of just these two articles will surprise most Wikipedians…

Lih recounts his experiences. In the case of Michael Getler, clearly a prominent journalist (ombudsman for PBS, tracked by the CIA, etc.), he didn’t find an article—so he created a stub article, traditionally the way to get a new article going.

I’ve done this many times before—I bolded the name, made internal wikilinks, included an external source and labeled it a stub. It had all the components any experienced Wikipedian would have created.

Even a bot looking for basic “articleness” would have found this perfectly acceptable. It was a fine stub. Another user Cmprince edited it to use a more specific “US television” stub tag. Yes, this was the start of a good seed crystal that would grow.

Or so I thought.

Within one hour, a User:Chris9086 came by and slapped a “speedy delete” notice on the page…

I’ll spare you a paragraph of inside baseball in the notice (citing seven Wikipedia criteria—or, rather, two criteria a total of seven times). Lih’s reaction, again as an experienced Wikipedian:

What the… what manner of… who the… how could any self-respecting Wikipedian imagine this could be deleted?

I’ve been an editor since 2003, an admin with over 10,000 edits and I had never been this puzzled by a fellow Wikipedian. Did he even bother to check the subject matter, or my user page to see my track record? I wrote on his Talk page:

…the speedy deletion tag on Michael Getler is inexplicable. Since he is the first-ever ombudsperson for PBS is not only notable, but extremely notable. — Fuzheado | Talk 19:54, 27 June 2007 (UTC)

In the meantime other Wikipedians came and added more to the article. Finally, eight hours later someone (User:JPD) removed the obviously inappropriate deletion notice. Chris9086 eventually got back to me with a one liner:

It was one sentence long when I added the tag. Chris9086 02:28, 28 June 2007 (UTC)

That was his justification for deleting it. Incredible. This user was so specialized in the chapter and verse of deletion criteria, yet he had no idea about Wikipedia’s communal editing culture, its collaborative spirit or the classic essay “The perfect stub article” and its modern recommendations. I was tempted to write a nastygram, “You have a problem. You have a deletion hammer, and everything looks like a nail.”

But Lih didn’t: He assumed an isolated incident. Until someone posted that the new (and now nearly defunct) Pownce.com didn’t have an article. Lih found that unbelievable, particularly since Pownce had good credentials and had already been written about in BusinessWeek.

“Let me prove you oh-so-wrong by clicking in Wikipedia and … what the?!”

Here’s what [[Pownce]] read:

View or restore 37 deleted edits?

Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name.

How in the wiki gods could this be? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?

The message about “37 deleted edits” is a bit unusual even to experienced Wikipedians. It’s a message only an administrator (like myself) can see, because admins can view deleted versions, undelete articles and restore pages. [Emphasis added.]

I was flabbergasted. I went into the deleted history, and examined the last version that got deleted. It had an infobox with hard statistics, a “see also” section, external links, the works. The text started:

Pownce is one of the latest entries in the world of online social networks. But unlike similar websites, its focus is not on meeting people. Pownce is centered around sharing messages, files, events, and links with already established friends. It was created and currently maintained by Digg founder Kevin Rose, with Leah Culver, Daniel Burka, and Shawn Allen.

Since the launch on June 27, 2007 new members can only join by friend invite or e-mail request.

Now this is not the best article in the world. It’s got some marketingspeak, but it’s not unsalvageable. Yet folks nominated it for deletion, and it was indeed deleted, by claiming:

Previously speedy deleted as spam. While on DRV, where all opinions were to endorse the deletion, the article was recreated. This is advertising about a non-notable website. Corvus cornix 20:02, 8 July 2007 (UTC)

DRV is Deletion Review… It’s basically the ash heap where you can revive articles that have been deleted. The article was originally deleted when four users…voted to delete. Only User:DGG had any sense to wait for a DRV outcome.

But at DRV, where you get some more eyeballs to second-guess the decision, it was also unanimous delete. Three users all voted to keep it deleted…The lone voice of dissent was user Tawker.

It’s incredible to me that the community in Wikipedia has come to this, that articles so obviously “keep” just a year ago, are being challenged and locked out. When I was active back on the mailing lists in 2004, I was a well known deletionist.

“Wiki isn’t paper, but it isn’t an attic,” I would say. Selectivity matters for a quality encyclopedia.

But it’s a whole different mood in 2007. Today, I’d be labeled a wild eyed inclusionist. I suspect most veteran Wikipedians would be labeled a bleeding heart inclusionist too. How did we raise a new generation of folks who want to wipe out so much, who would shoot first, and not ask questions whatsoever?

There’s more, but that’s probably enough. Except, maybe, for this (before Lih says he’s unilaterally undeleting Pownce):

In a drive for article quality, there have been new policies: citing references, writing biography of living persons and picking reliable sources. They are all good things, but if and only if they are coupled with existing community values that built Wikipedia—assume good faith, don’t bite the newbies (or even oldies), use the talk page, open lines of communication and support each others’ work. We’ve lost these values. The community has gotten so big you cannot recognize people anymore. It lost the village feel a while ago, but it’s not even a town or city anymore, it’s on the cusp of becoming an impersonal bureaucratic slog depicted in Apple’s 1984 video.

Lih’s undelete worked. The Talk page shows grumbling from a deletionist and another attempt to delete the article, but as of December 4, 2008, there was a good brief article.

Something’s happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear

Lih’s post drew 70 comments, which show an interesting range of attitudes on what Wikipedia is, was or should be. I found one particularly interesting, saying there are too few committed editors to be able to maintain a really large number of articles—another way of saying that, in the long run, crowdsourcing isn’t working. Or it could mean one (or all) of three things:

       New people with skill and time to spare aren’t coming on board fast enough—and some old Wikipedians are leaving or not doing much new.

       The large cabal of insiders has made it so difficult to create and edit material without constant vigilance and memorizing a large set of arcane rules that newcomers are either scared away or turned off.

       Too many editors are spending their time deleting articles (and arguing about things) rather than improving them.

I suspect all three may be true. I’ve seen enough to not wish to become a true Wikipedian. The third one is odd, particularly when people cite “credibility” as the reason to delete articles. If articles are for non-noteworthy subjects, isn’t it likely that obscurity will take care of credibility problems? That is: Wikipedia’s quality and credibility are likely to be judged by how the articles that people look for and can compare with other sources stack up. A sloppy article on the backup guitarist in a band nobody’s heard of, or some relatively obscure library person, may not matter because people won’t be looking for it. The articles that need vigilant editing are the ones likely to be searched frequently.

Here’s a comment from “Stbalbach”:

I’m a long time editor, since 2003, ranked in the top 300 by number of edits (most in article space). On May 11th 2007 I mostly gave up on Wikipedia - there is something wrong with the community, in particular people deleting content. I’d never seen anything like it prior to late 2006 and 2007. Further, the use of “nag tags” at the top of articles is out of hand. It’s easier to nag and delete than it is to research and fix. Too many know-nothings who want to “help” have found a powerful niche by nagging and deleting without engaging in dialog and simply citing 3 letter rules. If a user is unwilling or incapable of working to improve an article they should not be placing nag tags or deleting content.

As a mere user, I’ve noticed an astonishing number of “nag tags,” graphics and flags saying an article needs work of one sort or another. Is the problem better now than it was when this discussion took place (mostly July 2007)? I have no way to answer that question. What percentage of editorial effort goes to actual cleanup and improvement, vs. deletion proposals and discussion, vs. various bureaucratic wars? I have no idea—and, frankly, wouldn’t want to know. I am deeply suspicious to see “there just aren’t enough editors to make for good articles” used as an excuse for policies that clearly discourage newcomers from getting involved as editors.

What’s really happening? For one thing—and this one’s absolutely predictable in a rapidly-growing wiki or anything else—Wikipedia has gotten big enough that growth (since September 2006) has moved from exponential (e.g., doubling each year) to linear (e.g., growing by a relatively similar number of articles each year). That had to happen sooner or later: exponential growth in almost any field, particularly any human endeavor, is unsustainable after some point. Actually, though, growth is a little less than linear at this point: While the annual increase in articles was 665,000 during 2006 (apparently the peak), it dropped to 593,000 for 2007—and a little further to 570,000 for August 2007-July 2008. But, you know, that’s still an awful lot of new articles (probably including a lot of awful new articles). If the Deletionists are holding sway, you’d expect a much sharper drop. After all, if there weren’t enough editors to maintain quality control on 1.915 million articles on August 1, 2007, how can there possibly be enough to maintain quality control on 2.485 million on August 1, 2008?

As Carr was saying…

Getting back to Nicholas Carr’s post, here’s some of his commentary:

[G]iven human nature, is it really so “incredible” that Wikipedia has evolved as it has? Although writers like Yochai Benkler have presented Wikipedia as an example of how widescale, volunteer-based “social production” on the Internet can exist outside hierarchical management structures, the reality is very different. As Wikipedia has grown, it has developed a bureaucracy that is remarkable not only for the intricacies of its hierarchy but for the breadth and complexity of its rules. The reason Deletionism has triumphed so decisively over Inclusionism is pretty simple: It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making—with no end—and that’s the path that people prefer, at least when they become members of a large group. The development of Wikipedia’s organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds…

Maybe the time has come for Wikipedia to amend its famous slogan. Maybe it should call itself “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit on the condition that said person meets the requirements laid out in Wikipedia Code 234.56, subsections A34-A58, A65, B7 (codicil 5674), and follows the procedures specified in Wikipedia Statutes 31 - 1007 as well as Secret Wikipedia Scroll SC72 (Wikipedia Decoder Ring required).”

The first comment notes that similar things happened with Usenet groups and (some) email lists. “A variation of the tragedy of the commons seems to apply.” Seth Finkelstein thinks it’s the other way around: That Inclusionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making. Carr counters that rules and laws tend to be “deletionist”—and, you know, “Thou shalt not” (and modern variants) is a lot more common approach than “Thou shalt.”

Another comment notes a particularly sour experience: A person who adapted an article from his own site, on a significant topic, for Wikipedia; spent four or five hours getting it right using MediaWiki rules; and, a couple months later, found it deleted for copyright violation because he’d used his own material. This person now promises never to spend time improving Wikipedia again: “It’s a bureaucracy, nothing more.” One person points out one real problem with quick deletions: Everything disappears.

One comment is remarkable—at more than 1,000 words, it’s 50% longer than the post it comments on. Here’s a relatively mild paragraph near the start of the megacomment:

At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales has set a tone of competitiveness (which is all about winning) vindictiveness (winning at any cost) and hatred (a typical human-to-human emotion). He has stated often that he is anti-credentialist (his neologism for anti-intellectual and win-at-all-costs) and often cites his refusal to contribute to the Nupedia project is because he (understandably) feels “intimidated” by letting experts review anything he has written within the area of his training (economics). He would rather have amateurs review his writings.

As I say, that’s mild—there’s much harsher commentary later on. Is it justified? I have no idea. After wasting way too much time in various Wikipedia talk pages (including the remarkable User talk:Jimbo Wales), I am mostly reminded of old sayings about weakest links and committee IQs. And have to go look at some articles to remind myself that, for all its weaknesses, Wikipedia has many strengths, at least as a starting point and timewaster.

Wikipedia: The so-called “encyclopedia” that any axe-grinder can edit-war

Not my title, that’s Seth Finkelstein’s title for an August 24, 2007 post at Infothought—and the example has to do with MichaelMoore.com and a lengthy set of edits involving a Wikipedian who’s also a conservative critic of Michael Moore. By this time, the original details are no longer available, but here’s what Finkelstein has to say:

[I]t’s misleading to give just the raw number of edits—some edits were unobjectionable vandalism-fighting. And it’s almost certain that Ted Frank wasn’t acting in any official capacity. So it’s just another day on Wikipedia, where ideological factions battle each other for the prize of getting their spin in a high Google ranking position.

Except that item set off yet another edit-war, a “meta”-issue fight, having to do with a Wikipedia administrative faction deeming MichaelMoore.com an “attack site”. Which would make it liable to the penalty of having all its links purged from Wikipedia, as a kind of banishment. And that’s scary.

It’s hard to convey to the acolytes within the cult of Wikipedia how petty and in fact, downright creepy, it can appear to outsiders. At this point more sane Wikipedia administrators will pop up and say it’s just a few bad apples, the other admins will keep them in check. And my reply there is that still reveals a pretty disturbing sociological aspect of Wikipedia. Especially one that might give pause to the impulse to proclaim lots of experts should work for free to increase its power and respectability (and notably also increasing the capability of small cliques of Wikipedia admins to engage in political vendettas).

In an update, Finkelsteinlinks to what he calls a “full-blown Wikipedia-DRAMA,” which as of this writing is still available at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia: Administrators%27_noticeboard/IncidentArchive290#Michael Moore.com_-_hypocrisy.3F

You may not want to click on that link (it’s a section of a much larger page full of Wikipedia administrative battles). It’s filled with much more heat than light. If you do, notice the date tags: As far as I can tell, this long, extended, multipart war took place over two days. In which case, I can see why editors don’t have time to maintain quality control. Between wars like this, an average of 88-100 proposed Articles for Deletion each day plus some unknown number of quick deletions, they’re too busy doing this sort of thing.

All of which may be useful background to…

Inside Higher Ed–“Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia”–April Fool?

That’s Finkelstein’s tag for an April 1, 2008 post discussing Mark Wilson’s article (the quoted portion) in the April 1, 2008 Inside Higher Ed (www.insidehighered. com/views/2008/04/01/Wilson). Wilson cites the growth of Wikipedia. He misstates the results of the Nature comparison (which did not show Wikipedia’s accuracy to be “actually as high as the revered Encyclopedia Britannica”), but he does give Larry Sanger credit as a cofounder. Then he discusses “academic authority, or at least the perception of it”—and shortly after that exposes what I regard as a simple misunderstanding of how Wikipedia works:

The very anonymity of the editors is often the source of the problem: how do we know who has an authoritative grasp of the topic?

Given current attitudes and policies, that’s an irrelevant question—because Wikipedia does not admit to authority. He then proposes a solution:

That is what academics do best. We can quickly sort out scholarly authority into complex hierarchies with a quick glance at a vita and a sniff at a publication list. We make many mistakes doing this, of course, but at least our debates are supported with citations and a modicum of civility because we are identifiable and we have our reputations to maintain and friends to keep. Maybe this academic culture can be added to the Wild West of Wikipedia to make it more useful for everyone?

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.

But “knowing something useful” doesn’t matter. Only being able to cite something from a source acceptable by policy matters. Not that having more scholars involved with Wikipedia wouldn’t help, but it’s not that simple. He goes on to suggest that this offers “another outlet for our scholarship”—but it’s an outlet that can’t be properly acknowledged, since Wikipedia doesn’t allow for signed articles or sections of articles.

Finkelstein quotes the first two sentences of that second paragraph (“I propose that…useful”) and comments:

If the writer is serious, I’m going to save this for proof of one reason I’m so critical of Wikipedia. Namely, the proposals that experts should work for free, donating their time and energy in terms of grunt work to support the deliberate design choice of Wikipedia to favor quantity over quality.

It’s really a triumph of marketing over academic standards. Set up a system where any troll, vandal, or axe-grinder can mess up a carefully worded article. Then get experts (and others) to volunteer to fight off the trolls, vandals, and axe-grinders. Then claim this is the “wisdom of crowds,” where the result of all that uncompensated effort and perhaps burned-out contributors shows that, magically, openness produces respectable material.

As always, the comments are interesting. Jon Garfunkel notes Wilson’s ignorance of Citizendium. Crosbie Fitch says, in part, “If Wikipedia had a decent reputation system then professors would have joined in already… When a professor’s edits/words hold the same weight as those of a preschooler (and such weight cannot be adjusted in light of merit) then participation is considerably discouraged.” C.C. Pugh seems to argue that “publicly funded” academics (and many aren’t) are “failing their constituents if they don’t contribute to public understanding”—essentially, that editing Wikipedia should be considered part of a public college academic’s job.

Ah, but what of comments on the article itself? Some academics and others are all for it. Some are profoundly anti-Wikipedia. Brian Fisher brings up Citizendium. One academic seems to take it on himself to defend Wikipedia against other commenters. Larry Sanger takes issue with the claim that “the vision of its founders…has become reality,” saying “this is false” and objecting to having his name used in any attempt to encourage professors to get involved in Wikipedia:

My vision has always been for a maximally reliable information resource—not one that is controlled by faceless, often hostile, often irresponsible people, many of them teenagers and college students.

He explains why he cannot “in good conscience recommend that any serious knowledge professional participate in Wikipedia” and suggests Inside Higher Education take a look at Citizendium. I find it interesting that those most enamored of Wikipedia (mostly users) either don’t read other comments or apparently lend no credence to anyone in any way critical of it.

Closing

Once again, the felt need to elaborate overwhelms the source material—one good reason I shouldn’t be a Wikipedian. If some of you are saying “Why does Walt hate Wikipedia so much?” I’m not sure how to respond. I don’t hate Wikipedia. I use it. But it needs criticism, openly and often—the more so given the way it works internally.

When it comes to notability, I’d tend to be an inclusionist—for example, if 2.5 million articles are already acceptable in the English-language version, then wouldn’t (for example) inclusion in Who’s Who in America be enough to justify a biographical entry (unless the subject wants no part of it)? That is, after all, some level of prominence with verifiability from a trustworthy source.

Iris Jastram recently noted that “libloggers seem to have gotten bored with writing about Wikipedia some time ago.” I think that’s true. I think it’s a little unfortunate. (Jastram nails it more broadly: “Libloggers are only a sliver of the profession, and it’s a sliver that gets bored with some topics very easily.”) She found that “Wikipedia Angst” was out in force at a conference she attended and wondered whether it’s glib to say “we should just get over it already?” She hasn’t decided. Personally, I think “get over it” is always an unfortunate response—and “getting over” the manifest and possibly growing problems with Wikipedia would be as unfortunate as it would be to obsess over Wikipedia or demand people ignore it entirely.

Two websites attempt to deal with “authority” in Wikipedia algorithmically. Wikiscanner (wikiscanner.virgil.gr) looks for self-interested edits; at this writing, it’s between versions. The other, WikiTrust (trust.cse.ucsc.edu/), shows the “computed trust” of an article, coloring the background of articles depending on “trust.” WikiTrust can also be added to other MediaWiki wikis to show “trust.” The algorithm for trust is interesting:

First, we compute the reputation of each author by analyzing the author’s contributions. When an author makes a contribution that is preserved in subsequent edits, the author gains reputation. When an author makes a contribution that is undone or reverted quickly, the author loses reputation.

The trust value of a new word is proportional to the reputation of its author. When subsequent authors edit the page, words that are left unchanged gain trust: by leaving them there, the authors implicitly agree with them. Words closer to the edit gain more trust, as the author of the edit is likely to have paid more attention to them. In contrast, text that has been rearranged (new text, text at the border of cut-and-paste, etc) has again a reputation proportional to the author of the edit.

There’s a certain circularity to this, but it’s nonetheless intriguing. Not that either tool can or should settle the maze of issues surrounding Wikipedia’s stature—not its usefulness but, in the end, its reliability.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 1, Whole Issue 111, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Editorial Director of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

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