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


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 3: February 2005


Perspective

Wikipedia and Worth [Revisited]

Walt Crawford

Cites & Insights 4:12 (October 2004) included Perspective: Wikipedia and Worth, based on a test in which Alex Halavais changed a baker’s dozen worth of Wikipedia entries and described the results—and on a whole bunch of commentaries for and against Wikipedia. Site statistics show that 4:12 was downloaded by more unique visitors than any other issue during 2004, so most of you may already have read that essay.

The controversy over Wikipedia didn’t stop. There’s been enough action since then, in the web community and on library lists, that it makes sense to revisit the scene. I am quoting from library lists in this case, albeit selectively—noting that these lists are open for anyone to join and review the archives.

Opening Salvos

On November 15, 2004, Robert McHenry (former editor in chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica) posted “The faith-based encyclopedia” at Tech central station (www2.techcentralstation.com). He discusses an early internet discussion proposing the Interpedia, “a reference source for people who have connectivity to the internet.” McHenry says the discussion group “generated a great quantity of writing, none of it encyclopedic in nature”—discussions of necessary software, how to attract contributors and organize teams, how to allow editing but prevent “unauthorized alteration,” and “rhapsodic explanations of why the Interpedia, as a noncommercial and collaborative product, was ipso facto superior to all existing encyclopedias, all of which were published for [shudder] profit and all of which had their origin in [shudder] print.”

He concludes that, although some participants said “how do we start,” the discussion eventually petered out, “in part because some real encyclopedias developed Internet presences, and in part because the volunteer nonleaders of the ungoverned, unstructured project truly did not know where or how to begin.”

A decade later, however, “the Wikipedia project is flourishing.” As of November 2004, some 30,000 contributors had written 1.1 million articles in 109 languages, including more than 382,000 “pages that were thought ‘probably’ to be encyclopedic articles” in the English version. (The Manx Gaelic Wikipedia only had three articles—but the Klingon version had 48.)

Impressive effort, attracting positive press. As he notes, the founders built (or found) the software (wiki), attracted contributors, generated buzz—and created the needed background hierarchy to keep things going. “The question is, however, just what have they created?” He cites the FAQ to see what they intended to create:

Wikipedia’s goal is to create a free encyclopedia—indeed, the largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and depth and also to become a reliable resource.

McHenry believes that the order of adjectives is significant (reliability is less important than free, broadest, and deepest); I’m not inclined to parse the sentence that carefully. He goes on to note that the statement is “like everything else on the Wikipedia site…editable, by anyone.”

McHenry cites other stuff about collaborative editing, noting that the process is claimed to allow Wikipedia “to approach the truth asymptotically.” Then McHenry starts to trash the claims and the methodology. Ed Felten did this earlier (but much less emphatically), suggesting that Wikipedia’s editorial process will result in a “random walk” around some plateau of quality that may or may not be as good as (or better than) a traditional encyclopedia, but is unlikely to be the “highest degree of accuracy” that Wikipedia’s advocates assert as a reachable goal.

McHenry doesn’t buy it. He mixes the “moist and modish notion of ‘community,’” “vague notions about information ‘wanting’ to be free,” and “journaling” as part of education. He knows it’s nearly impossible to carry out a thorough assessment of an encyclopedia’s quality—so he looks at one article in Wikipedia as a case study. He’s not impressed, asserting numerous typographic, styling, grammatical and diction errors and calling it a “C [high school] paper at best”—despite more than 150 edits. He also says earlier versions were better written—“the article has, in fact, been edited into mediocrity.” He concludes:

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

Before commenting further, I should point out that Tech central station is a distinctly right-wing website. Its slogan is “where free markets meet technology.” It’s also fair to assume that a former encyclopedia editor will be inclined to favor print encyclopedias. Is the Britannica free of error? Certainly not—and in reading a given article, I may or may not have much idea who’s “used the facilities before me” (whose editorial hands have touched and changed the writer’s contribution, if I know who the writer is or why I should trust them). It would be easy to ignore this essay as sour grapes.

Four days later, Jason Scott posted “The great failure of Wikipedia” to one of his weblogs, ASCII by Jason Scott (ascii.textfiles.com). His essay runs seven double-spaced pages, followed by four pages of comment-and-response as of January 4, 2005.

Scott researches computer history: That’s the focus of this weblog. He begins:

I have now tried extended interaction with Wikipedia. I consider it a failure. In doing so, I will describe why, instead of just slinking off into the night on my projects. Maybe it will do some good. Maybe it will not. I’m sure, at the end of the day, there must be hundreds like me at this point. Burned, slapped, ejected from the mothership for not following the rules, no matter how intricate and foolish. Let me at least go with some smoke.

The concept of Wikipedia is a very engaging and exciting one, especially to someone like myself who spends an awful lot of time collecting information and then presenting it to people. Normally, the work I do is the work that’s done. That is, if I don’t give much attention to a specific section of my sites, that section will stay static, even if it’s in need of improvement. This is not very enjoyable. In collaboration, you will put your tools down for the night, and when you wake up the next morning, more work is done. This is very exciting, very enjoyable. It’s why people work in teams in the first place.

He describes his own (usually solitary) working habits, the enticement of Wikipedia, and running into people who regard it with “a near-fanatical aspect.” He wanted to get more people involved in researching computer history, e.g., the history of AOL. So he signed on to Wikipedia and started some work. At this point in the discussion he tells Wikipedia workers that he’s going to make them angry: “What I am doing is trying to stop people from working on Wikipedia with the idea that they’re accomplishing good.”

Scott does do history, so he brings in the Usenet FAQ (one of the earliest FAQs), which succeeded in part (he says) because of “a lot of collaborators but a short list of people maintaining it.” He notes The Mythical Man Month, a classic computer-related book, which concludes that adding people to a project that’s behind will usually cause it to fall further behind. Going off to one side, Scott uses IMDB user comments to suggest, “A low barrier to entry leads to crap.” All of this may be relevant to Wikipedia.

His primary criticism: Wikipedia has “a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs”—and the larger groups mean content generators “have to become content defenders,” defending their expert text against changes from a larger group of people with no expertise in the subject. He also hates the “Neutral Point of View” espoused by Wikipedia: “Like wikipedia itself, it is a great idea in theory. In application, of course, it turns into yet another hammer for wonks and whackjobs to beat each other and innocent bystanders.”

I’m sorry, but content creators are relatively rare in this world. Content commentators less so. Content critics are a dime a hundred, and content vandals lurk in every doorway. Wikipedia lets the vandals run loose on the creators, while the commentators fill the void with chatter. It is a failure.

Scott goes on to say that he might make most of his works available “essentially for free to the public” but will not allow Wikipedia to use them. He refutes the comparison between Linux and Wikipedia is false and notes that there are other wikis out there with higher barriers to editing to “ensure that the person who is going to undo your hours of work with a few mouse clicks is at least, from some relatively objective standpoint, vaguely entitled to do so.”

There was feedback, although I’m guessing that most flames showed up elsewhere. What shows up here is a civilized back-and-forth among Scott and four others. Notably, Scott agrees with “peterb,” who says Wikipedia is a success for users even if not for some creators: “You are correct; from the outside, to someone who is looking for basic information, a lot of Wikipedia will be ‘good enough.’”

Five weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, Larry Sanger published “Why Wikipedia must jettison its anti-elitism” on Kuro5hin (www.kuro5hin.org)—and all hell broke loose, or at least the kind of hell that happens on Kuro5hin and slashdot. Sanger’s five-page “op-ed” (labeled as such) generated 397 comments as of January 27 (312 of them by January 5), adding up to more than 62,000 words (considerably longer than my latest book). Some of these people have way too much time on their hands.

Sanger co-founded Wikipedia but has since left the project. He says up front, “I know Wikipedia is very cool. A lot of people do not think so, but of course they are wrong.”

So what are Sanger’s issues? “First problem: lack of public perception of credibility, particularly in areas of detail.” He’s not saying Wikipedia is unreliable—but that it’s perceived as inadequately reliable “by many librarians, teachers, and academics.” Saying “but it gets used a lot” does nothing to negate that problem: “people use many sources that they themselves believe to be unreliable, via Google searches, for example.” He goes on to point out the benefits of credibility—and to suggest there’s a real problem with credibility in specialized topics outside the interests of most Wikipedia contributors. (He suggests comparing Wikipedia’s philosophy section to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as one example.)

“Second problem: the dominance of difficult people, trolls, and their enablers.” See Scott’s article, above. “Far too much credence and respect accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labeled ‘trolls.’” He thinks this is a generic problem with unmoderated Usenet groups that’s infected Wikipedia—although he notes that Wikipedia takes steps to control the problem in its most extreme cases.

“The root problem: anti-elitism, or lack of respect for expertise.” “[A]s a community, Wikipedia lacks the habit or tradition of respect for expertise.” He comments on his efforts to overcome anti-elitism (including snubs and disrespect of expertise) and the consequences of the current situation. Experts with relatively limited time and patience don’t participate, because they have to defend their positions and are shouted down if they complain about whack jobs.

Sanger believes that Wikipedia’s openness does not require disrespect toward expertise. He believes Wikipedia would be much better if more experts contributed. He anticipates a “more academic fork of the project” at some point.

Responses and List Comments

People piled on the op-ed right away. That’s typical of high-energy threaded sites. In the process, they revealed the range of attitudes that make Wikipedia possible—but that may hold it back from being what it could be. Originally, I only looked at those comments that show up at default settings of Kuro5hin, less than 25% of all comments by number but still more than 25,000 words. (When I went back to download the whole set of comments, I found myself unwilling to read through the full 400.)

Wikipedia supporters and fanatics—not always the same people—exhibited a whole range of defensive mechanisms, from variants of “it isn’t meant to be the equivalent of a print encyclopedia” to “if something’s wrong, it’s up to you to fix it,” with strong doses of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and “You left the project, therefore don’t get to say anything about it” mixed in. Several people agreed with some or all of Sanger’s commentary. Several people noted that their own work had been used in Wikipedia without attribution—and, in one case at least, their attempt to provide such attribution was deleted.

Here’s just a few of the comments:

Ø    “I once considered submitting some articles to Wikipedia on the topics I am expert on…but after I looked through the site I realized I didn’t have the time or patience to deal with the fools that inhabit the project.” (dharma)

Ø    “…any problem wikipedia has can probably be traced to some sort of residual elitism somewhere: amongst a contributor, or what a questionable rule promotes in contributor behavior” (circletimesquare)

Ø    “I’ve read Larry Sanger’s Wikipedia articles: they’re mostly crap… The simple fact of the matter is that credentials are no guarantee of competence. A huge percentage of academia is filled with professional bullshitters, and they seem to be pissed off that Wikipedia is doing an end-run around their nonsense.” (Delirium)

Ø    “Hey, Larry—why are you writing about Wikipedia when you yourself proved incapable of sticking with the project?... Either go back and contribute, or stop talking smack about a project you’re no longer involved with.” (grendelkhan)

Ø    “I love Wikipedia, but I’d also like to have a reviewed-by-academics section. Why? So I can finally cite it in my damn essays without getting “is this source reliable?” written there, that’s why.” (reklaw)

Ø    “Larry’s comments betray a complete ignorance of the project… I am not anti-exertise [sic] in any fashion…” (from its current head)

Ø    “Wikipedia seems, to me, to be society’s present best chance to rise above the current acedemic [sic] principle of respecting only the work of someone with a PhD, and encouraging high standards of research and writing among society at large.” (J T MacLeod)

Ø    “Wikipedia is just fine, and the more the ‘experts’ squawk and complain, the greater the evidence that it is so. This is the Age of Participation, and self-correction will ultimately win out, because experience, not expertise, is the new authority.” (Also lots of stuff about postmodernism or PoMo and why expertise no longer matters.) (xnuzboss)

Ø    “Certainly, if what Wikipedia is after is ‘official’ recognition of it being an accurate and reliable source something needs to be done. But, I don’t think that is what is sought after at all… The content of articles do not necessarily have to have a one-to-one correspondence to any particular version of reality.” (cdguru)

Ø    “No encyclopedia is reliable, Wikipedia included. And no encyclopedia should be used for anything but a starting point…” (vadim)

Ø    “We must explore what networked knowledge can give not mimic what an eatablished [sic] encyclopedia already can do. I don’t care if conservatively thinking minds can’t accept wikipedia.” (drquick)

Ø    “I question one of your most basic premises: that Wikipedia works… I will assert…that Wikipedia simply fails to achieve the status of ‘Encyclopedia.’ It is complete, comprehensive and indexed, but it is not accurate or readable.” (cjames53)

Ø    “Unfortunately, in today’s complex world there is not simply a single objectively true point of view…” (MoebiusStreet)

Ø    “One should never fully trust any source regardless of who (expert or not) ‘approved’ it or did not approve it. This is the real beauty of wikipedia, it teaches us to always question, to seek out other sources, compare and contras [sic] and be critical.” (thehero)

Ø    “Summary of 1,000 ‘arguments’: Third party observer: ‘One can produce a reference work of better quality than Wikipedia currently does by doing X.’ Wikipedia cult member: ‘Doing X will not produce a perfect reference work, therefore, it’s of no value. And anyway, if there’s an error in Wikipedia, it’s your own f[**]ing fault for not fixing it.” (Estanislao Martinez, with three-letter modification in quotation)

Just glancing at the first few dozen of several hundred additional comments shows a pattern of even less polite and thoughtful comments than these.

Weblogs and Wired News

Karen Schneider wrote “Wikipedia’s reality check,” on January 1, 2005 at Free range librarian. She discusses Stanger’s post and some responses as well as Scott’s article. She’s intrigued by the fact that Sanger helped develop Wikipedia, calling it “the triumph of hope over experience.”

Schneider notes that her operation, Librarians’ Index to the Internet, does use Google—but only to find potential resources. LII doesn’t point to Wikipedia articles because they’re too fungible: “we don’t have the time or resources to constantly monitor the Wikipedia entries or dig through long, heavily trolled discussions to verify the authority of a resource.”

In the end, Schneider pretty much dismisses Wikipedia:

Good encyclopedias already exist. Wikipedia is fixing a problem that isn’t there, and in doing so, with its endemic, unsolvable, inherent problems, it is revealing the naïveté of its creators and the predictable characteristics of unmanaged electronic territory.

If you take Wikipedia as a direct equivalent or competitor to a print or CD-ROM encyclopedia, I’d agree—and it’s pretty clear that that’s how Wikipedia’s creators view it. But I think there’s more to it: Wikipedia does serve a different and (potentially) valuable purpose.

j Baumgart posted “Wikipedia and a controlled vocabulary at j’s scratchpad on January 5, 2005. She’s noticed problems with many of the linking terms: They’re inconsistent, which leads to problems. She’s asked whether “Wikipedians” patrol the encyclopedia looking for name and link issues. She suggests that a controlled vocabulary might help. Baumgart is, after all, a librarian.

Clay Shirky lost it (in my opinion) in a rant at Many2many that included this comment:

Of course librarians, teachers and academics don’t like the Wikipedia. It works without privilege, which is inimical to the way those professions operate…. You can see the reactionary core of the academy playing out in the horror around Google digitizing books held at Harvard and the Library of Congress… The physical book, the hushed tones, the monastic dedication, and (unspoken) the barriers to use, are all essential characteristics of the academy today.” (Quotations from Godwin’s law, a January 5 posting. I’m not quoting directly from Many2many for the usual reason: as with a number of other weblogs, it is nearly impossible to print more than the first page of any posting, and I’ve pretty much given up.)

I was astonished by Shirky’s entry when I read it. His flat-out attack on (all?) librarians, teachers and academics seemed extreme. In later postings, he’s dismissed professional taxonomies as being of any use on the basis that ‘folksonomies’ are cheaper for some uses, so maybe this wasn’t an isolated incident.

Danah Boyd also did a Many2many commentary, “On a vetted Wikipedia, reflexivity and investment in quality.” She doesn’t believe Wikipedia should be ignored but also doesn’t believe it will ever be a (traditional) encyclopedia. She uses the page on “anomie” as an example of the problems with Wikipedia entries. She agrees with Shirky that it’s a “system not a product” and “value[s] it intensely” but doesn’t buy into the religion that gives it authority “simply because it is open-source.” She also notes why academics deserve some credit for their expertise.

A January 10 Wired News piece by Daniel Terdiman, “Wikipedia faces growing pains,” brings another face of Shirky: A question as to whether Wikipedia’s methodologies scale well. He quotes Danah Boyd saying that she finds Wikipedia “an exceptionally valuable tool,” but notes that non-technology entries may not be very good. The article quotes Larry Sanger and also Jimmy Wales’ assurance that Wikipedia is healthy: “It is increasingly being cited and relied upon in news by academics, librarians and researchers.” (Wales is president of the Wikimedia Foundation, home of Wikipedia.) That’s astonishing if true…but Wales goes on to dismiss the notion that Wikipedia “or any encyclopedia” should be a top-tier reference source. He also notes that Wikipedia will be frozen at some point, with a new one starting then.

Web4Lib

At least 24 postings related to Wikipedia turned up between January 3 and January 9, 2005, starting with “Co-founder of Wikipedia talks about problems” and changing to either “Generation shifts and technology” or “Seeing ourselves as others see us.”

Alain Vaillancourt, who’s a participant, said no academic group would take on improving Wikipedia: “Wikipedia is far from being an encyclopedia in any sense of the term. It is a better organized outgrowth of communal blogs and nothing more. The best solution would be to drop ‘pedia’ from the name and put in something else.” Brad Eden (who knows Larry Sanger) agreed: “There will never be an academic interest in this work, because it just doesn’t have any type of adequate peer review or group that can adequately review the authority and accuracy of what is presented or ‘published.’”

Lars Aronsson raised a bunch of controversial points: “First we must agree that Wikipedia is needed, or this discussion becomes pointless. Second, improvements over what Wikipedia is today must be possible to implement… That the web needs a free encyclopedia…is shown by Wikipedia’s outstanding popularity. Many people are buying the concept, even if some librarians aren’t… If it were as bad as you suggest, it would drop off the [Alexa list of most popular websites] pretty soon, wouldn’t it?... Innovations always appeal to new categories of users. Wikipedia is primarily for Internet users, not for traditional users of encyclopedias.”

Andrew Mutch questioned the final statement: “What’s the distinction between the two groups and on what basis do you make that claim[?] It implies that people who use encyclopedias in the library won’t get online to use a similar resource. If so, I would be interested in seeing anything that shows that to be true.” Bill Drew took issue with Aronsson’s first assertion and noted, “Just because people use it does not mean it is needed. It could mean that they are unaware of better resources…. Until it becomes a resource created by experts and verified in some way, it will always be suspect in my view.” He also took issue with the “generation shift” claim. Drew, like me, has been using the internet and computers since very early days—and doesn’t consider himself part of the “non-computer” generation.

Ross Singer agreed with a Drew point I didn’t quote (people using whatever’s easiest) and said it’s why libraries and librarians “are struggling to get patrons to use the clumsy resources that they pay so much to have access to… What makes [Wikipedia] special (and therefore, more valuable than academic and ‘vetted’ sites, IMHO) is that people are actually using it.” [I would note that people use “vetted” paid library online resources by the millions every month and print resources by the tens of millions every week: Maybe not as much as Ross or I would like, but usage statistics for subscription resources belie any claim that the resources aren’t being used.]

Vaillancourt suggested “traditional paper encyclopedias” are inaccessible to most people because there aren’t libraries in every neighborhood. “So even a badly flawed effort like Wikipedia fills a certain information need.” [Nobody pointed out that you can buy a CD-ROM encyclopedia for $30 or so—and anyone with the equipment to use Wikipedia almost certainly has the equipment to use such an encyclopedia, unless they’re using a library terminal nearby one of those paper encyclopedias.] He also asserted that there are two Wikipedias: general articles from the general web community, Open Source and related computer articles—with lots of depth and considerable expertise—from the Open Source community.

Aronsson returned, pushing the “generation shift” concept (I call it KTD, and I’m with Mutch in questioning its general applicability). He asserts that Karen Schneider’s preference for a traditional encyclopedia and statement that Wikipedia isn’t needed “comes from her mindset where she looks for an encyclopedia, rather than linkable information on the web.” This is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to calling Karen a technophobe or traditionalist! Aronsson says that, if he’s writing on the web, he’d just link to Wikipedia for more information “because I am writing on the web, my readers are on the web, and Wikipedia is on the web.” He also says, “fans of Wikipedia will tell you that it is already an encyclopedia, and fans of encyclopedias are likely to disagree.”

Karen S. returned at this point, flatly disagreeing with Aronsson’s “First we must agree” assertion—“There’s no rhetorical support for that position in this discussion”—and responds to the “needed because popular” claim by asking, “Do people need cigarettes and SUVs?...There’s no strong relationship between what people need and what they use… There is a need for high-quality, freely-available information, and I’m all too aware of the gaps out there. I wish some of the energy behind Wikipedia had gone into advocating for the retention and restoration of important information resources that have been removed from the Internet.”

Aronsson backed down just a little: “Perhaps ‘need’ is a word I should avoid…” His response to Bill Drew’s argument that use of Wikipedia is not a classic generation shift is to beg the question: “Then, could you please describe how classic generation shifts work?” [Sorry, Lars, but if I say that Lady Chatterley’s Lover is not pornography, the response “Then, could you please describe what pornography is?” isn’t particularly useful.]

Fiona Bradley admitted that she uses Wikipedia and other wikis. “For me, as a librarian working with a very small reference collection and incredibly short deadlines, Wikipedia provides a launching point [for further research]… Most publications are not peer reviewed, including books, journals and conference papers.” There’s more to this sensible commentary.

Ryan Eby, who “would probably be considered part of the ‘generation shift’ away from print media,” chimed in on why Eby uses Wikipedia. “For starters, almost no teachers…will allow encyclopedias to count as a source… I’m not the kind of person [who] trusts any one source, be it an encyclopedia, website or book by ‘experts.’… [Main reasons Eby uses Wikipedia:] Constantly updated… References: Most of the information…have…a good amount of references…I  use Wikipedia as a starting point… Open access… Breadth of coverage… Multiple viewpoints… In general I wouldn’t call Wikipedia a[n] endpoint in research but as a starting point I probably couldn’t ask for much more.”

At about this point, the prevailing subject head changed to “Generation shifts and technology” and some posts didn’t relate directly to Wikipedia. Bernie Sloan wasn’t ready to buy the “generation shift” concept entirely. “The idea seems to revolve around each new human generation being more technologically adept, or integrating technology into their lives more completely, than the preceding generations. But I see evidence that this isn’t so cut and dried.” One of his twenty-something kids is really wired (or “unwired”); the other went six months without internet access “and it didn’t seem to bother him a bit.” One of his brothers checks email once every nine months—and his 80-year-old mother has “been an avid home computer user since the days of the Apple IIe.”

I guess my point is that every generation has members who take to technology like a duck to water, and every generation has members who aren’t particularly technologically adept, and who couldn’t care less that they aren’t.

Fiona Bradley (who’s 26) agreed: “I have seen assumptions made about younger generations…over and over again with little substance to back them up.” She notes that these assumptions mean that kids aren’t getting training in technology. It’s assumed they’ll know it intuitively.

Steve Cramer noted, “It’s easy, imo, to get into stereotypes about technology use and age.” When he trained for the local freenet, “half the folks” at users meetings “were retirees, or at least grey-haired; there was also a large number of young adults and a few high school kids, but not too many folks in between…. Ten years later, I bet those older netizens give tips to their grandkids…on searching the web or customizing their browsers.” (Art Rhyno later noted that at one point, in Canada, senior citizens represented the fastest-growing segment of internet users.)

Aaron Dobbs moved the “generational shift” idea in a different direction—one I mostly agree with, despite my constant poking at KTD oversimplification. He notes that we keep getting more technology and that descendants of early adopters are likely to seem more adept and, themselves, also be early adopters—but that doesn’t mean all kids are technophiles.

“ChuckO” flatly denied all evidence that every generation has some members who aren’t particularly technologically adept. In a grand universalist statement, he asserted: “This may be true of the older generations, but the younger generations breathe technology…” He bases this absolute universal claim—he explicitly denies that there are any young people who don’t “breathe technology”—based on working with young people and looking at the demographics of Friendster. That, and the fact that his 70-year-old mother refuses to touch a computer. Simple, isn’t it: ChuckO has proved that all young people “breathe technology” and that all old people avoid it entirely.

Ryan Eby wasn’t buying this at all. “I still think it’s true for most generations (not being inherently tech savvy). While [tech savviness] may be more prevalent with younger generations, it’s far from 100%... While more and more are growing up with technology, it still can’t be ‘presumed.’” He notes that the messages have demonstrated that plenty of people, at all ages, “defy the norms.”

Postmodernism had to arrive at some point—and, arriving after Shirky’s jumping-the-shark moment and broadside against librarians, there was also a new subject, “Seeing ourselves as others see us.” Larry Campbell’s take: “What I find most interesting about the wikipedia as a web phenomenon is the way in which it affects the whole idea/ideal of ‘authority’ and ‘expertise.’… Perhaps the wikipedia isn’t so much imitating the authority of the encyclopedia but rather inducing a more critical awareness of the nature and limits of ‘authority’ as such.”

The threads stopped around January 9; that usually happens with a hot topic on Web4Lib (and most other lists). The last post I saved was from Lars Aronsson, who clarified that he “wasn’t talking about human generations at all, but of generations of technology replacing each other”—pointing us again to Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Aronsson’s examples of media shifts within computing didn’t make much sense to me, but I haven’t read the book—and I don’t buy the idea that the web represents a technological generation shift over print resources. It’s rarely that simple. It’s certainly not that simple when comparing Wikipedia to, say, Encarta. Aronsson also felt the need to slap librarians around a bit: He says Wikipedia’s fans “are not reference librarians who earn their living by navigating the paperbound information space.” Think of all those reference librarians out there who ignore online resources… I don’t know of any. Do you?

Publib—and coming full circle

While I may have ignored some, I did print off three Wikipedia-related posts on Publib, all on January 11, all responding to Chris Ely, who was curious to see if anyone was using Wikipedia for reference, “even if it’s just a starting point to find other materials. My concern is that ‘anyone can edit’ and I’m curious about how accurate it can be without someone overseeing the edits.”

Elizabeth Thomsen is a fan: “[T]he beauty of the Wikipedia…is that instead of someone overseeing the edits, everyone is overseeing the edits. I was skeptical when I first heard about this… I was surprised at the quality of most of the articles I read… Exploring more, I learned why the Wikipedia works as well as it does [She goes on to note the primary mechanisms.] It’s really quite an amazing community, not at all the anarchy you might be imagining from the scary words—‘anyone can edit’!”

Jim Deane started with the standard and appropriate caution: “I think you must be careful with any information source.” He uses Wikipedia and has contributed to the effort. “My area of specialty is physics, and the articles I have read on physics topics have generally been first-rate… I would look for verification sources (books, journals) for most information in Wikipedia… If you look at the Wikipedia content controls, you can see that there are actually some ways that abuse can be curtained…”

Chris Rippel is impressed with the currency of Wikipedia, noting its post-election coverage and, more recently, its article on the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. Rippel preceded that by recommending that Chris Ely read “Walt Crawford’s Perspective on Wikipedia [in C&I 4:12].”

Conclusions

Which brings us back to that essay. Here’s what I concluded last October:

Wikipedia is certainly not worthless. Wikipedia is also not automatically better than a traditional encyclopedia because of the community of writers. I would tend to use Wikipedia entries as starting points, to be used on a “Trust but verify” basis. But isn’t “trust but verify” the base heuristic for almost all resources, traditional or new?

My assumption is that lots of specialists have contributed good work to Wikipedia, particularly in areas related to the web and digital resources. My assumption is also that some Wikipedia content is faulty, biased or wildly incomplete. In the latter case, I’d make the same assumption about a traditional encyclopedia, up to and including Britannica. Personally, I doubt Wikipedia will “eclipse” traditional encyclopedias (note that Britannica is once more available in print form), just as I doubt that weblogs will replace newspapers or that econtent will sweep away print media. Another comparison may be apt: While Encarta may have doomed Funk & Wagnall’s (and incorporated it at one point), it hasn’t doomed Britannica—or vice-versa. Different forms, different media serve different people with different needs.

I did my own tests—only of Wikipedia, and if I was going to compare it with a traditional encyclopedia I’d probably use Encarta or its ilk. My results were mixed. Some entries were very good and reflected considerable expertise (I was particularly impressed by the network of entries on lossy compression technologies), while some were dry as dust and gave no flavor of the subject they dealt with. I didn’t catch obvious errors, but I wasn’t really looking.

What is an authoritative resource? How about articles in refereed STM journals? Are they automatically trustworthy because they’ve been through that rigorous peer review process? Not really, as candid observers within the field will tell you. Very few observers argue with the cynic’s view of peer review as it applies to authors with an axe to grind: Peer review doesn’t determine whether an article will be published, only where it will be published.

There was a dustup on the SPARC Open Access Forum about quality and inclusion in indexes. Implicit in the dustup—which I won’t review since it’s pretty specialized—is the notion that a great many peer-reviewed journals are full of crap. Sometimes that’s implicit (to a knowledgeable observer) from the name of the journal. Sometimes you need to be aware of the standards of the field to know which journals are, in the words of one observer, essentially vanity presses.

This is a tangent, but I sometimes wonder about the dissociation of article and journal that appears in online aggregation and OAI. Specialists will have their own mental lists of first rank, second rank but trustworthy, and FoC [see previous paragraph] journals; they’ll use those mental filters to judge the worth of new articles. But what about non-specialists? Are those filters readily available? Who will tell a person looking for health guidance which peer-reviewed journals to avoid at all costs?

I think there is a connection to Wikipedia. Alternative publishing does not imply lack of worth. Traditional publishing isn’t an automatic indication of worth or veracity. If the key is “trust but verify,” we need better ways to verify likely worth and probity. I assume today’s librarians are finding such ways, and finding ways to communicate those methods to the rest of us. At least I hope so.

I don’t see much reason to change those conclusions.

Why did I spend six thousand words on this brouhaha? Because the process is itself interesting. Because I see a narrative arc here, and I love story telling. Because even the top-level Kuro5hin comments are noteworthy—if nothing else, in showing how extreme advocates for a cause or position can claim to undermine their opponents without actually responding. You say Wikipedia doesn’t stand up to scholarly scrutiny and you can prove it? Well, then, it’s not really intended to be an encyclopedia, in spite of the site’s assertions. You say the facts are wrong sometimes, or that they don’t agree with established authority? It’s a new era, and authorities don’t matter: Wikipedia represents some truth, even if not your tired old reality-based truth. You say Wikipedia needs improving? Well, unless you’re spending all your time making improvements, you’re not allowed to comment. To most of which I would respond in words that won’t appear here, since I try to keep the swearing to a minimum.

But I also get a little edgy when Wikipedia is attacked for not being an exhaustive scholarly resource. No encyclopedia is (or should be) an exhaustive scholarly resource. Encyclopedias should always be starting points.

I was more favorably impressed by the threads at Web4Lib and Publib than by the interminable comments at Kuro5hin. Maybe I shouldn’t be. LISNews demonstrates that you can use slashdot’s software (or a variation thereof) without descending into slashdot’s endless flamewars and ignorant hyperbole (perhaps overstating the case, but that’s my experience). Web4Lib continues to astonish with its usually polite, usually thoughtful, unmoderated postings. Even ChuckO’s extreme position was stated calmly, and nobody called Aronsson a fathead or worse. (Nor should they have. I may not agree with what he Aronsson saying, but the comments were thoughtful and carefully worded.)

Universalist arguments are usually nonsensical, including KTD/generation shift arguments. “We all” do very little based on age or similar broad-brush characteristics (including being human), except breathe, eat, and eventually die.

Arguing for Wikipedia’s superiority by shifting the definitions suggests weakness in the case for Wikipedia. I believe Wikipedia’s supporters err in pushing the “better than print” argument. Better they should make Wikipedia the best online resource it can be (which may mean showing a little more respect for authority—I really don’t know!), while granting that traditional encyclopedias also have considerable worth. Maybe “pedia” as part of the name does more harm than good—again, I’m not sure.

Maybe it’s human nature (for some humans, not all) to advocate your own preferred solution by putting down alternatives rather than by showing the virtues of your choice. That’s sad if true. Wikipedia can do just fine. So can Encarta. So can Britannica, back in print and still in digital form. And so, to be sure, can all of those books, journal articles, “vetted” websites and primary sources that encyclopedias of any nature should lead us to.

Masthead

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 3, Whole Issue 59, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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