A Wiki Situation

Admit it: You sometimes consult Wikipedia. Scott McLemee wonders if you should write for it, too.

June 14, 2006

To wiki or not to wiki? That is the question.

Whether ‘tis nobler to plunge in and write a few Wikipedia entries on subjects regarding which one has some expertise; and also, p'raps, to revise some of the weaker articles already available there...

Or rather, taking arms against a sea of mediocrity, to mock the whole concept of an open-source, online encyclopedia -- that bastard spawn of “American Idol” and a sixth grader’s report copied word-for-word from the World Book....

Hamlet, of course, was nothing if not ambivalent –- and my attitude towards how to deal with Wikipedia is comparably indecisive. Six years into its existence, there are now something in the neighborhood of 2 million entries, in various languages, ranging in length from one sentence to thousands of words.

They are prepared and edited by an ad hoc community of contributors. There is no definitive iteration of a Wikipedia article: It can be added to, revised, or completely rewritten by anyone who cares to take the time.

Strictly speaking, not all wiki pages are Wikipedia entries. As this useful item explains, a wiki is a generic term applying to a Web page format that is more or less open to interaction and revision. In some cases, access to the page is limited to the members of a wiki community. With Wikipedia, only a very modest level of control is exercised by administrators. The result is a wiki-based reference tool that is open to writers putting forward truth, falsehood, and all the shades of gray in between.

In other words, each entry is just as trustworthy as whoever last worked on it. And because items are unsigned, the very notion of accountability is digitized out of existence.

Yet Wikipedia now seems even more unavoidable than it is unreliable. Do a search for any given subject, and chances are good that one or more Wikipedia articles will be among the top results you get back.

Nor is use of Wikipedia limited to people who lack other information resources. My own experience is probably more common than anyone would care to admit. I have a personal library of several thousand volumes (including a range of both generalist and specialist reference books) and live in a city that is home to at least to three universities with open-stack collections. And that’s not counting access to the Library of Congress.

The expression “data out the wazoo” may apply. Still, rare is the week when I don’t glance over at least half a dozen articles from Wikipedia. (As someone once said about the comic strip “Nancy,” reading it usually takes less time than deciding not to do so.)

Basic cognitive literacy includes the ability to evaluate the strengths and the limitations of any source of information. Wikipedia is usually worth consulting simply for the references at the end of an article -- often with links to other online resources. Wikipedia is by no means a definitive reference work, but it’s not necessarily the worst place to start.

Not that everyone uses it that way, of course. Consider a recent discussion between a reference librarian and a staff member working for an important policy-making arm of the U.S. government. The librarian asked what information sources the staffer relied on most often for her work. Without hesitation, she answered: “Google and Wikipedia.” In fact, she seldom used anything else.

Coming from a junior-high student, this would be disappointing. From someone in a position of power, it is well beyond worrisome. But what is there to do about it? Apart, that is, from indulging in Menckenesque ruminations about the mule-like stupidity of the American booboisie?

Sure, we want our students, readers, and fellow citizens to become more astute in their use of the available tools for learning about the world. (Hope springs eternal!) But what is to be done in the meantime?

Given the situation at hand, what is the responsibility of people who do have some level of competence? Is there some obligation to prepare adequate Wikipedia entries?

Or is that a waste of time and effort? If so, what’s the alternative? Or is there one? Luddism is sometimes a temptation – but, as solutions go, not so practical.

I throw these questions out without having yet formulated a cohesive (let alone cogent) answer to any of them. At one level, it is a matter for personal judgment. An economic matter, even. You have to decide whether improving this one element of public life is a good use of your resources.

At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that Wikipedia is not just one more new gizmo arriving on the scene.  It is not just another way to shrink the American attention span that much closer to the duration of a subatomic particle. How you relate to it (whether you chip in, or rail against it) is even, arguably, a matter of long-term historical consequence. For in a way, Wikipedia is now 70 years old.

It was in 1936 that H.G. Wells, during a lecture in London, began presenting the case for what he called a “world encyclopedia” – an international project to synthesize and make readily available the latest scientific and scholarly work in all fields. Copies would be made available all over the planet. To keep pace with the constant growth of knowledge, it would be revised and updated constantly. (An essay on the same theme that Wells published the following year is available online.)

A project on this scale would be too vast for publication in the old-fashioned format of the printed book. Besides, whole sections of the work would be rewritten frequently. And so Wells came up with an elegant solution. The world encyclopedia would be published and distributed using a technological development little-known to his readers: microfilm.

Okay, so there was that slight gap between the Wellsian conception and the Wikipedian consummation. But the ambition is quite similar -- the creation of  “the largest encyclopedia in history, both in terms of breadth and depth” (as the FAQ describes Wikipedia’s goal).

Yet there are differences that go beyond the delivery system. Wells believed in expertise. He had a firm faith in the value of exact knowledge, and saw an important role for the highly educated in creating the future. Indeed, that is something of an understatement: Wells had a penchant for creating utopian scenarios in which the best and the brightest organized themselves to take the reins of progress and guide human evolution to a new level.

Sometimes that vision took more or less salutary forms. After the first World War, he coined a once-famous saying that our future was a race between education and disaster. In other moods, he was prone to imagining the benefits of quasi-dictatorial rule by the gifted. What makes Wells a fascinating writer, rather than just a somewhat scary one, is that he also had a streak of fierce pessimism about whether his projections would work out. His final book, published a few months before his death in 1946, was a depressing little volume called The Mind at the End of Its Tether, which was a study in pure worry.

The title Wells gave to his encyclopedia project is revealing: when he pulled his various essays on the topic together into a book, he called it World Brain. The researchers and writers he imagined pooling their resources would be the faculty of a kind of super-university, with the globe as its campus. But it would do even more than that. The cooperative effort would effectively mean that humanity became a single gigantic organism -- with a brain to match.

You don’t find any of Wells’s meritocracy at work in Wikipedia. There is no benchmark for quality. It is an intellectual equivalent of the Wild West, without the cows or the gold.

And yet, strangely enough, you find imagery very similar to that of Wells’s “world brain” emerging in some of the more enthusiastic claims for Wikipedia. As the computer scientist Jaron Lanier noted in a recent essay, there is now an emergent sensibility he calls “a new online collectivism” – one for which “something like a distinct kin to human consciousness is either about to appear any minute, or has already appeared.” (Lanier offers a sharp criticism of this outlook. See also the thoughtful responses to his essay assembled by John Brockman.)

From the “online collectivist’ perspective, the failings of any given Wikipedia entry are insignificant. “A core belief in the wiki world,” writes Lanier, “is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds.”

The problem being, of course, that it does not always work out that way. In 2004, Robert McHenry, the former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, pointed out that, even after 150 edits, the Wikipedia entry on Alexander Hamilton would earn a high school student a C at best.

“The earlier versions of the article,” he noted, “are better written over all, with fewer murky passages and sophomoric summaries.... The article has, in fact, been edited into mediocrity.”

It is not simply proof of the old adage that too many cooks will spoil the broth. “However closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability,” as McHenry puts it, “it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler.”

The advantage of Wikipedia’s extreme openness is that people are able to produce fantastically thorough entries on topics far off the beaten path. The wiki format creates the necessary conditions for nerd utopia. As a fan of the new “reimagined” "Battlestar Galactica," I cannot overstate my awe at the fan-generated Web site devoted to the show. Participants have created a sort of mini-encyclopedia covering all aspects of the program, with a degree of thoroughness and attention to accuracy matched by few entries at Wikipedia proper.

At the same time, Wikipedia is not necessarily less reliable than more prestigious reference works. A study appearing in the journal Nature found that Wikipedia entries on scientific topics were about as accurate as corresponding articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

And in any case, the preparation of reference works often resembles a sausage factory more than it does a research facility. As the British writer Joseph McCabe pointed out more than 50 years ago in a critique of the Columbia Encyclopedia, the usual procedure is less meritocratic than one might suppose. “A number of real experts are paid handsomely to write and sign lengthy articles on subjects of which they are masters,” noted McCabe, “and the bulk of the work is copied from earlier encyclopedias by a large number of penny-a-liners.”

Nobody writing for Wikipedia is “paid handsomely,” of course. For that matter, nobody is making a penny a line. The problems with it are admitted even by fans like David Shariatmadari, whose recent article on Wikipedia ended with an appeal to potential encyclopedists “to get your ideas together, get registered, and contribute.”

Well, okay ... maybe. I’ll think about it at least. There’s still something appealing about Wells’s vision of bringing people together “into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity” – through a “common medium of expression” capable of “informing without pressure or propaganda, directing without tyranny.”

If only we could do this without all the semi-mystical globaloney (then and now) about the World Brain. It would also be encouraging if there were a way around certain problems -- if, say, one could be sure that different dates wouldn’t be given for the year that Alexander Hamilton ended his term as Secretary of the Treasury.


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