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


Selection from Cites & Insights 7, Number 10: September 2007


Net Media

Wikipedia and Other Wiki Notes

It’s been six months since my last commentary on Wikipedia—more than enough time for new controversies to arise, be discussed and fade away. I’ll look at one or two of them, plus a variety of miscellaneous issues and a cluster of articles on Wikipedia. I planned to note developments at Citizendium as well—but I think that’s premature, other than to say that Citizendium has not disappeared.

First, some notes on wikis within librarianship. Are we better off with one substantive, growing wiki or with multiple wikis on the same or similar topics?

Casey Bisson’s opinion is clear from the title of his April 24, 2007 post at MaisonBisson (maisonbisson.com): “Please, Not Another Wiki.” Excerpts:

Ironic secret: I don’t really like most wikis, though that’s probably putting it too strongly. Ironic because I love both Wikipedia (and, especially, collabularies), but I grit my teeth pretty much every time I hear somebody suggest we need another wiki.

Putting it tersely: if wikis are so great, why do we need more than one of them?

I think my concern is that wikis appear to depend on either very large or very, very active communities. Critical mass doesn’t come easily, and just because anybody in the world can edit a page, doesn’t mean they will…

[Quoting John Porter:] “personal value precedes network value.” That is…

…each person on the network needs to find value for themselves before they can contribute value to the network.

Blogs are intensely personal, wikis less so. Issues of “ownership” and our definition of “personal” all play a larger role online that might have previously been imagined. One of the mistakes of Web 2.0 is the notion that users will generate content for free. Money may not be the issue, but “value” is….

[E]ven without an economic theory to explain it, none of us has ever heard of a “wikier,” even as the world appears overrun by bloggers. (“Wikipedians” are the exception that proves the rule.)

Perhaps I cringe at any suggestion to create a new wiki because I wonder why that content can’t be published on an existing wiki. Perhaps I cringe because I wonder if the proprietary motivation to create a new wiki is itself in conflict with the community nature of wikis. Perhaps anybody can have a blog, but it seems to take a whole community to raise a wiki.

Most commenters disagreed at least in part. “Jennimi” said this on the same day (among other things):

I have been exploring the usefulness of wikis in different situations and feel there is real potential there if, as you say, critical mass is achieved. Thing is, as an academic librarian, I am also excited when I see folks try new things (even fail! but hopefully, learn something?). I don’t think they’re the “end all” or perfect for every use requiring easy online editing across a group of folks…. but I’d like to be open to the potentials.

Ryan Deschamps offered this comment on April 27:

I find that software support wikis are immensely useful, since Wikipedia is not going to get into the nitty-gritty of how to develop templates for Drupal.

I also like wikis for “one-off” projects like organizing a conference, or even attending a conference. Seeing people’s schedules for Computers in Libraries was quite helpful to me when I was there.

And using a wiki for presentations is not the worst thing you could do.

That said, coming up for a wiki, hoping that everyone will just join in on your pet project is a certainly misguided and often performed waste of virtual space.

I would never attempt to read Casey Bisson’s mind, but I’m not entirely sure that there’s as much disagreement among these three statements as might first appear. I’m assuming that “why do we need more of them?” is deliberate overstatement—unless you add “for a given purpose.” If I was posting on this (and since I’ve never built a wiki I’ve avoided doing that), I might very well use Bisson’s title but would offer a somewhat different terse take:

Why do we need more than one wiki for a given purpose in a given field?

Never mind Wikipedia; it’s pretty much sui generis. (If Citizendium succeeds, it will not be “another Wikipedia.”) I’ll point out one specific example in the library field—and it’s certainly not the only one.

LISWiki (liswiki.org) began in June 2005 as an attempted “niche encyclopedia.” Among other things, it has pretty solid and growing lists of library-related blogs: One for liblogs (non-organizational blogs) with links to pages for academic library blogs and public library blogs, and smaller lists for other types of organizational blogs.

But there’s also the Blogging Libraries Wiki (http://www.blogwithoutalibrary.net/links/)—exclusively for institutional blogs, pointing back to LISWiki for liblogs. When I was working on my book on public library blogs, I needed to combine lists from two wikis, finding substantial but far from complete overlap. Should that be necessary? Should it all be in LISWiki—or, on the other hand, are we better off with more focused wikis? I’m not sure.

A more extreme case may be Library Success Wiki (http://www.libsuccess.org/)—not because it’s extraneous but because there’s a tendency for people to start new, smaller wikis about local success rather than contributing to this group effort. Meredith Farkas founded Library Success Wiki and posted “Let 100 wikis bloom?” on May 1, 2007 at Information wants to be free (meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/), a followup to Bisson’s post. Excerpts:

Often, when people talk to me about creating wikis about very specific aspects of library and information science, I suggest that they just add a section to the Library Success Wiki. It’s not that I hate competition. It’s because I know that, more often than not, the other wiki will not get used very much (unless it is a directory project a la Blogging Libraries). And I know that we’re all better off having a smaller number of wikis that really get used than a lot of wikis that get lightly used at best…

I’ve seen a lot of examples of niche wikis, both inside and outside of the library world. I understand why people would want their own wiki. It’s a good experience to install the wiki, develop content, an organizational scheme, etc. And those of us who have blogs are so accustomed to creating unique blogs to fill a niche. While that does work well in the blogosphere, it doesn’t work in the wiki world. Maybe also people don’t feel comfortable carving out a space of their own in a wiki created by someone else. However, this is what a community wiki is all about. They belong to all of us.

Wikis are all about getting large numbers of people to collaborate and share information in a single space. It’s about strength in numbers. If we “let 100 wikis bloom” we each get a smaller pool of people contributing to each of them. We’re much stronger coming together in a single space to do that. That way, people only have to remember one URL, they only need to create one account or profile, and they would feel a lot more connected to a single community than they would to a bunch of wiki communities…

Obviously there are certain topics that wouldn’t fit into the Library Success Wiki. Maybe they’d work in LISWiki, which is more like an encyclopedia for our profession. And certainly I’m not suggesting that people put institutional knowledge within Library Success. For institutional knowledge, you really do need your own institutional wiki…

And if there’s something you don’t like about the wiki you want to add to, change it. You have as much right to make changes as the administrator does (other than on the server side). I’d love to see the Library Success Wiki better reflect the needs and interests of the profession.

Because we are so much more powerful together.

I didn’t see much in the way of new constructive comments here except for one that said something similar to Deschamps—that is, that special-purpose wikis can make a lot of sense, as can wikis built just for the experience of building a wiki. Farkas explicitly agrees—but for “knowledgebase wikis” of more than local value and more than limited duration, her point is, I believe, solid.

Here’s where I stand at the moment, for what it’s worth—which is very little in this case:

Ø    Blogs and wikis are very different tools. Blogs favor the individual (although group blogs can work well) and are explicitly publish-and-respond (or, if comments aren’t supported, publish) mechanisms. Most posts on most blogs don’t change once they’re posted; if they do change, the change is usually very visible within the post itself. Blogs are also designed for streams of individual items in reverse chronological order. Wikis favor the group and are explicitly designed for group contribution over a linked range of topics. They’re designed for change within each item (where changes can be tracked but only if you’re patient and know how to look for changes). They’re not designed for publish-and-respond conversations; they’re designed to build coherent topical structures. Chronological order only comes into play on history pages.

Ø    When related content that could be in one wiki is spread across two, four, a dozen wikis, it’s less visible and harder to relate. A small library’s success story will have far more impact if it’s on the Library Success Wiki (assuming that wiki remains healthy and growing) than if it’s on one of a dozen smaller wikis that may or may not have “success” in their name.

Ø    None of which says that you shouldn’t create a wiki just to see how it works (and then take it down or note that it’s just an experiment—or open a new niche!). None of which says that project wikis, conference wikis, what-have-you don’t make sense. Like blogs, wikis are lightweight publishing mechanisms; they serve a range of purposes.

Ø    Maybe it’s “unremarkable” (as a snarky comment notes) to suggest that, before you think about creating another wiki, you ought to consider contributing to and using existing ones. So be it. Remarkable or not, it’s still good advice.

Now back to the big cheese—Wikipedia.

Wikipedia

I use Wikipedia. Of course I use Wikipedia—and I think I have a pretty good idea when it’s essential to crosscheck against other sources. For most pop culture and many computer tech issues, it’s a great first stop and frequently all you need. For that matter, I used Wikipedia as a backup when working on my book on public library blogs, for those cases where Worldcat Registry doesn’t show the service population for a library (either because it’s a non-U.S. library, because it’s part of a larger administrative unit, or whatever reason). If I couldn’t find the service population on the library’s website or in a linked community website, I took the city or county population from Wikipedia as a rough estimate (although I also verified the information via email to the libraries). Why not? That’s the kind of demographic information that Wikipedians have made real efforts to populate and it’s pretty much all verifiable through other sources—but that takes longer.

I do not buy the idea that Wikipedia makes other encyclopedias obsolete, that it’s the world’s best encyclopedia or any other such grandiose notion. I am increasingly offended by the copout used for errors in Wikipedia—the “fix it yourself” line. I am much more offended by the notion that truth is arrived at by consensus, but maybe that’s because I live in a country where that would mean evolution is nonsense. I have had experience with something I’ve seen noted elsewhere: When you get to topics involving something other than just facts, topics that you personally know something about, Wikipedia can sometimes be quite strange…and no, it’s not my job to “fix” it [and try to keep it fixed], particularly since these are frequently matters of opinion and perspective.

Continued coverage of problems and issues with Wikipedia seems justified because it’s so pervasive and because the claims of its founders and supporters tend to be extreme. I discuss problems with libraries as well, and I hold libraries in high regard.

The Essjay Situation

Here’s one where the story arc was short: From late February 2007 to early March 2007—and most of what I have here comes from two blogs, Nicholas Carr’s Rough type (www.roughtype.com) and Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought (sethf.com/infothought/) Not that there wasn’t lots of other commentary, but these two provided more than enough. Go to Infothought’s February and March 2007 archives for more; searching “EssJay” on Rough type’s archives-and-search page may get what you need (that blog doesn’t seem to have month-by-month archival access). I’m excerpting from both blogs, generally without direct quotation; I regard Carr and Finkelstein as reasonably reliable sources. (I’ve never me either one. Finkelstein and I have a long-running history of email and blog back-and-forth, while to the best of my knowledge Nicholas Carr neither knows nor cares that I exist.)

It’s all about “Essjay”—a “particularly dedicated and well-qualified” Wikipedian discussed in the New Yorker article I noted in C&I 7:3. According to that article, he holds a Ph.D. in theology, has a degree in canon law and is a tenured professor of religion at a private university who has written or contributed to sixteen thousand entries on Wikipedia. He was also one of the admins and checkusers, giving him unusually great power.

Except that Essjay was really Ryan Jordan, a 24-year-old who has never taught and holds no advanced degrees. When the New Yorker disclosed this (in a February 2007 editor’s note), it quoted Jimmy Wales on the issue of a fake persona with fraudulent credentials: “I regard it as a pseudonym and I don’t really have a problem with it.” Wales hired Jordan for Wikia, Wales’ for-profit concern.

That wasn’t the end of it, of course. Some people were disturbed about Ryan’s lies. Other people were more concerned about Wales’ diffident response—since, when it comes down to it, Wales has the final word at Wikipedia. There was a lot of commentary in various venues. Attempts to support either Jordan or Wales’ defense of him came off as particularly lame.

By March 3, the jig was up. Wales asked Jordan to resign from Wikia with a somewhat disingenuous message, saying his “past support of EssJay in this matter was fully based on a lack of knowledge about what has been going on.” It still didn’t seem to be a problem that Ryan lied repeatedly about real-world credentials—but the exposure of those lies made Wikipedia (and Jimbo) look bad. Much of EssJay’s history disappeared from Wikipedia and a “retired” page appeared instead—along with, of course, loads of support from those who still didn’t feel that he had done anything wrong.

Finkelstein pointed out the key sentence in Wales’ decision to get rid of “EssJay”: “I only learned this morning that EssJay used his false credentials in content disputes.” Wales absolutely knew that Jordan lied to the New Yorker writer. He presumably knew that Jordan lied in a letter to a professor. But, as Finkelstein puts it:

That’s lying to those outside The Family.

But he used his false credentials in content disputes. That’s serious! It’s an IN-WORLD offense! It’s inside The Family.

Jordan is gone—at least under the EssJay identity. Some significant number of people seemed to feel that was a shame: That it’s OK to lie about your credentials, a harmless form of role-playing. Others dismissed it as an isolated incident and noted that Wales eventually did the right thing. Others saw the whole situation as emblematic of corruption at the heart of the enterprise.

I’m not offering an independent opinion here. There’s a level of hypocrisy in saying that Wikipedia’s model ignores credentials while simultaneously giving some contributors more power than others, the kind of power that credentials might normally justify. The more I look at that aspect of Wikipedia, the more I get a whiff of Animal Farm—but that’s as far as I want to go. I think it’s worth reminding people of this story, even six months later. The two bloggers noted here (and others, who you can reach from links in their stories) think about this stuff a lot more than I do; take the time to read what they have to say (and follow some links). Then make up your own mind whether it all matters. I believe it does—not to discredit Wikipedia as a to-be-checked resource but to question the model and its general and specific applicability.

Miscellany

An April report from Pew Internet & American Life says that more than a third of American adult internet users (36%) consult Wikipedia—with more usage among better-educated, higher-income and younger people. It also says that, on a typical day, 8% of those surveyed used Wikipedia.

So 64% of internet users don’t consult Wikipedia? I find that possibly more interesting, particularly given the tendency of Wikipedia to show up high in search engine results.

Gary Price offered some quick reactions to the report in an April 15, 2007 post at Resource shelf (www.resourceshelf.com). Excerpts:

Do people only utilize Wikipedia because they don’t know that other resources exist be it Encarta (as you know, most of it is available free if you know how to find it) or that many libraries offer free remote access (from any web computer) to many general purpose and specialized encyclopedias?...

We often hear from some Wikipedia users that they use it as a starting point but would always verify with other tools. Sounds like a decent plan. However, do other users (at all user levels) know that other tools are easily available?...

+ Do some users realize that new projects, like Citizendium exist and, at least on the surface, have different controls who can and cannot enter/edit material?...

+ Is Citizendium a service the librarians need to support?

+ Do users understand both the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia? In other words, do they understand how it works?...

Stephen Abram used the occasion to rant (his word!) about educational institutions that ban Wikipedia (in an April 29, 2007 Stephen’s lighthouse post), noting that it needed “contextualizing,” not banning. It’s an angry post that makes a good point, although I question Abram’s seemed equating of Wikipedia with other encyclopedias. College students should never be citing any general-purpose encyclopedia without other reference sources—but that doesn’t make all encyclopedias equally reputable or disreputable.

Steve Lawson offered a very different perspective in “So what can we teach using Wikipedia?”—a May 10, 2007 post at See also… (stevelawson.name/seealso/). Discussing Wikipedia with faculty members and others, he suggested not banning it, but rather using it as an example for evaluating sources. The post recounts a fascinating experiment done in a Renaissance Culture class. The students worked as groups to build encyclopedia entries on topics assigned by the professors—and part of the assignment was to upload the entries to Wikipedia. Lawson introduced them to Wikipedia and its concepts, showed how traditional encyclopedias differ in covering Renaissance topics, talked about encyclopedias as “tertiary sources”—and the students did their thing. Lawson’s post has links to the assignment-related wiki, which in turn links to the posted articles (or what’s left of them) and provides the original versions as posted. He thought it was regarded as a success, even if it’s not repeated. His closing comment:

I hope that students came away with a more critical attitude toward Wikipedia–not critical as in “negative,” but critical as in greater understanding of how the sausage gets made. I hope that those lessons are generalizable to their reading and research on and off the web. At the very least, I hope that when they do use Wikipedia they’ll think back to this experience, and have a better understanding of the site and what uses it might and might not be appropriate for.

Christopher Harris took a slightly different tack in his June 8, 2007 Infomancy post “Wikipedia: Less bad than irrelevancy” (schoolof.info/infomancy/). While including some verbiage about the survival of libraries that I think wildly overstates the case, he does say that it’s somewhat pointless and self-destructive to attack Wikipedia as “bad” or “wrong.” Instead, he offers “ten ways to express reservations about Wikipedia while avoiding being seen as someone who doesn’t get it.” It’s quite a list—and one where I don’t believe excerpts would be useful. Go read the post.

One ongoing, multifaceted controversy regarding Wikipedia is its policy on biographical entries for living people. There’s the “Daniel Brandt problem,” where a critic of Wikipedia faced unfair and unfortunate entries, and the problem faced by Seth Finkelstein and several others who just didn’t want to be there at all. Wikipedia will delete a biography if the Powers that Be decide the person isn’t sufficiently notable—but they won’t delete it if they decide he or she is, even if the subject doesn’t want to be there. (Seth Finkelstein’s February 23, 2007 post on the Brandt situation resulted in one of those comments that just makes me cringe, this time from Crosbie Fitch: “All knowledge is consensus, which is to say that there is always disagreement, but on some things more people are agreed, or more reputable people are agreed (depending upon your perspective).” I’m sorry, but no matter how much you qualify the statement, “All knowledge is consensus” is simply appalling. As Andrew Orlowski responded, “No, Crosbie—you can’t vote for the truth.”)

Or at least that was the case. On June 14, 2007, Finkelstein noted changes in Wikipedia policy “allowing some consideration of a living person’s requests to opt-out of a biography page.” Indeed, as of this writing, there is no entry for Finkelstein—or for Brandt. (In Brandt’s case, as Finkelstein notes, it took 14 iterations of the “internal process” before Brandt’s request for deletion finally worked.)

Wayne Bivens-Tatum, the Academic librarian, posted “Wikipedia and the word of God” on July 18, 2007. He makes a point that’s sometimes important when comparing Wikipedia entries to those of some traditional encyclopedias: It’s harder to judge the entries because they’re unsigned. To some extent, we assume authority for signed works where the author has clear credentials. That’s not possible in Wikipedia—and maybe it’s an obsolescent view of “authority.” Go read the post—and the related July 9, 2007 “Two cheers for Wikipedia.”

The First Monday cluster

The March 2007 and April 2007 issues of First Monday (www.firstmonday.org) include four articles on Wikipedia. I’ll just point you to them, if you’re interested in more stuff on the topic. Read the articles at least as critically as you’d read anything in Wikipedia itself. I found John Willinsky’s March 2007 article most interesting, but that’s personal—and I have a real problem with one of the April articles that equates “quality” with being a “Featured Article” in Wikipedia. The study “demonstrates a crucial correlation between article quality and number of edits”—but it’s really demonstrating a correlation between number of edits and being chosen by Wikipedians as Featured. That could be considered self-correlation: “Whatever we spend most time on must be the best.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 7, Number 10, Whole Issue 94, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at OCLC.

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

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