The future of Wikipedia

Are humans capable of not crapping on open systems?

Monday, December 5, 2005 by Frogboy | Discussion: WinCustomize News

Do majorities determine facts? How about motivated minorities? Do they determine fact? This is an issue that the popular Wikipedia has had to deal with.

CNET has an op-ed piece about Wikipedia and how its growing popularity -- and growing use as the defacto standard on "what is true"(TM) has highlighted the fact that it's open to abuse, disinformation, and plain old error in ways that "closed" knowledge bases are not.  That's not to say that encyclopedias don't make mistakes -- they certainly do.  Moreover, traditional encyclopedias and other closed mediums often have hidden agendas that the reader may not be aware of.

However, Wikipedia's openness means that anyone can modify any page regardless of merit.  For example, this Fall, a disgrunted WinCustomize user used the WinCustomize Wiki entry to trash moderators and admins they didn't like.  Even now, over half the entry is dedicated to "criticism" of WinCustomize due to forum arguments (where according to logs, less than 1.5% of WC users go).

Read CNET's excellent commentary on the subject.

Reply #1 Monday, December 5, 2005 5:13 PM
I use Wikipedia all the time, mainly for hints on ways to refine my search. Because it's an open source you can't take anything for fact without verifying the information from a "more" reliable source, but I think it's a fairly good broad based resource and a decent forum for opinions. As for the Wincustomize article there; if most people are like me they’d click on a link just to see what all the b**ching was about.

Reply #2 Monday, December 5, 2005 5:40 PM
The part about forum criticisms seems out of place to me.
Reply #3 Monday, December 5, 2005 5:49 PM
When I am looking for info, I'll often include "wiki" in the first search query. I have found most wiki entries to be helpful and interesting. I, and I think most people, are able to distinguish between fact and opinion, so it is usually apparent when someone is abusing the system because of a personal grudge. The veracity of facts is more difficult to be certain of. But most of the better wiki articles contain links to outside sources.

The story of John Seigenthaler's experience in the CNet article, and of WinCustomize's own experience shows that people will abuse the system. But we already knew that. Wiki is robust because it is adaptable, and I consider it one of my staples for beginning any research into a topic. Like any encyclopedia entry, usually only the basics are covered, but the articles usually offer enough information for me to do more detailed research more quickly than I would have without them.

Viva la wiki
Reply #4 Monday, December 5, 2005 6:17 PM
It is unfortunate when people abuse a cool technology. Of course, abuse is a relative term - one man's abuse is another man's promotion, though I think we can agree that comments on the character of specific forum admins is cutting it a bit fine.

Maybe something like a "verified true by X users/Y admins" would be useful, though of course, the trouble is that any changes then have to be re-verified. It's a tricky task.

Ultimately, cases like these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The vast majority of the time, pages are caught if they try and do something silly. For example, the change to the WinCustomize entry was caught by those watching the articles, which included myself. The system does tend to work - and when it's found that it hasn't, it's fixed.
Reply #5 Monday, December 5, 2005 6:20 PM

Entities such as Encyclopaedia Britannica have a hard-earned reputation over a long existence that inspires confidence in their accuracy.

Maybe one day Wikipedia will be seen likewise....maybe not.

The danger lies with the eventual 'forgetting' that it's 'open-sourced' and thus exposed to abuse, error and actual majority-fed prejudice....

This little wood-duck prefers to Google for a direct source of Information...

Reply #6 Monday, December 5, 2005 6:25 PM
Why, you little wood-duck! Who'd have thunk it?

I agree, though-- one advantage of the web is the ability to access primary and/or authoritative sources on so many subjects.
Reply #7 Monday, December 5, 2005 6:54 PM
Well, of course, as the founder of two wikis, I'm somewhat biased towards trust in the wiki model.

Yes, I google too, if I want some specific facts. But if I want a general overview of a topic that I know is going to be reasonably accurate, I'm likely to go to Wikipedia. It covers topics that I want to know about. It has the details that I crave. I know its limitations, but I also know its strengths, and for me, the latter far outweigh the former.

As you say, Brittanica has a history, along with every other encyclopedia. At the start of that history they were hardly accurate in every respect, and were most certainly biased towards the public opinion. Even now, I am sure there are places where opinion sneaks in, if only through the choice of what is to be covered and what is not. I think Wikipedia's come far, and it will continue to improve over time. Whether that will be good enough for other people is up to them, but for me, it's good enough right now.
Reply #8 Tuesday, December 6, 2005 9:21 AM
Actually, that CNET piece was pretty vapid. While the libelous material on Wikipedia gets the headlines, a vast array of entries is chock full of errors. While some entries are fairly solid, in my experience ANY use of Wiki is done at your own peril. The only appropriate use is if the stakes of a particular fact are sufficiently low that you don't mind being wrong. As a resource for anything semi-serious like school research papers, it is a waste of time.

The problem is that the logic of Wiki does not apply well to encyclopedias. It rests on the value of information aggregation -- the more independent contributions, the more likely the aggregate result will be correct. This is how open markets are meant to work, and often they do so quite well. But in that instance what matters is the accuracy of the value of an exchange ON AVERAGE. In the case of an encyclopedia, however, that is not what matters. Rather than having a more accurate reference in the aggregate, users would rather it be accurate in each bit of information in each entry. But that's exactly where information aggregation solutions fail. It's like extrapolating from the efficiency of markets in the aggregate to the efficiency of markets in each and every transaction. Whether in the market or in a Wiki, you have to make strong assumptions about the rationality about all participants for that to be the case, whereas in the aggregate you do not.

Moreover, accuracy improves in the long run only with a sufficiently large number of eyes reviewing it. This is why open source software can work so well, another version of information aggregation. But many Wikipedia entries get relatively few visitors and fewer of them are concerned with actively editing, and so such entries will take much longer to reach an optimal level of accuracy, if ever.

Bottom line: Wikipedia is nice in theory, but poor in practice.
Pete Morton
Reply #9 Tuesday, December 6, 2005 9:43 AM
The forum critique is a bit out of place for me as well. I don't see any egotistical stances on here...but then I'm not on the forums all that much. When I have been on here, I've only experienced nice people who are always keen to help.
Reply #10 Tuesday, December 6, 2005 5:53 PM

The forum critique is a bit out of place for me as well. I don't see any egotistical stances on here...but then I'm not on the forums all that much. When I have been on here, I've only experienced nice people who are always keen to help.

Oh, there's egos...we all have them....and mine says that had I written that piece about our forums I may have been even more critical...but in reality the WC forums are only a very small part of the whole animal and only drama-queens are likely to deem its idiosyncracies worthy of inclusion at all.  The problem with Wiki is probably that striking a supposed 'balance' by having both supporters and detractors 'averaging' opinion is not really any better than hearing ONLY from  one or the other as all 3 ways are grounded in bias.  What's needed is someone with no vested interest at all...totally neutral opinion.

The problem there of course is that 'totally neutral' means really no understanding of the skinning-site animal at all so even 'neutral' may not be all that informative/enlightening....

Reply #11 Wednesday, December 7, 2005 1:17 AM
Honestly I love the part saying that it "takes time to earn these titles." Well, yeah it takes time to earn any kind of title, on pretty much any forum, and in the real world (unless you're royalty I guess).

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