Making Wikipedia better, Part II

Summary:Making Wikipedia more transparent for readers, reflecting multiple views and adding more hooks that make monitoring articles convenient will add to readers' confidence.

This is Part Two of my three postings about how Wikipedia can be improved. Ross Mayfield, a friend and frequent interlocutor with me on this subject told me the first installment made him want to strangle me, which I find encouraging. Tough love makes us better.

I wish Wikipedia would forget about being an encyclopedia, because the form is broken. As a reference work, the encyclopedia strives for a single version of reality, even thought there is little doubt that on many issues there are many viable interpretations of events and facts. Because Wikipedia emphasizes the strengths of its community, the members of that community make some egregious mistakes of self-indulgence that a greater attentiveness to the reader would ameliorate. I wish Wikipedia would forget about being an encyclopedia, because the form is broken. As a medium for dialogue, which is essential to democratic society, Wikipedia suffers from a lack of convenient tools for understanding who is changing articles, preventing readers from making informed judgments about the value of information they find in the encyclopedia.

Let's take this summary of the faults of Wikipedia, which I think is can be an invaluable addition to the world of knowledge, and focus on how to make it better. Better than Encyclopedia Britannica. Better than an encyclopedia. Better as a community.

Forget one reality, objectively delivered. It just ain't so, unless one is talking about how to perform a mathematical calculation. Even in matters of science, there are contending interpretations of the meaning of data and they are critical to revolutions in perception. The fossil record is reinterpreted by new findings that place species in different epochs than they once were. Quantum Mechanics undermines some of Einstein's findings, which overturned Newtonian physics. Capturing the flow of change is more important to human understanding than freezing one version of reality. This is why I agree with Ross that a "stable version" of the Wikipedia, which Jon Udell called for in a thoughtful article yesterday, need not be a goal of the site, though it may be useful for a printed version—but, I'd ask, why print the thing? It needs to continue to change and fork.

The greatest problem with the Wikipedia, in my opinion is that it inherited from the encyclopedia the notion of a single entry about a given topic. Wikipedia must encompass differences of opinion much better than it does. Rather than have a single entry about controversial topics, such as George W. Bush or sociobiology, the most productive approach would be to allow the reader to see contending views-—more than two of them, as life isn't binary—presented as a series of articles under the same heading. It would yield a much richer view of facts. For example, the Bush entry doesn't deal with campaign issues he ran on, putting them in another canonical article (one article about each campaign) that, amazingly, summarizes the campaign issues of 2004 as focused primarily on non-issues, such as allegations about President Bush and Senator Kerry's military records, without any mention of domestic policies that were prominent or substantive debate about Iraq policy.

Giving full range to controversy by allowing different opinions eliminates the tendency of the encyclopedic form to take a stance of infallibility, which is the greatest weakness of existing media. Multiple articles would allow controversy to flourish and, where someone has made a decision about what they want to consider, readers can choose for themselves to ignore and pay attention to what they want. If I read about evolution, I will not give intelligent design equal weight and would likely ignore any entries about it, but  someone else may want to consider it.

Freedom of thought requires that even stupid ideas get their due. The evolution entry could, ultimately, dismiss intelligent design, but the fork to the intelligent design article could remain as an option when displaying results on searches for evolution entries. Let all sides be heard rather than try to summarize all views into an "objective" article.

An author needn't write the whole of each article, but could use other authors' text to fill in areas where they agree, while focusing on other issues of dispute. A reader could then view some summary of what is agreed upon across all versions of an entry in Wikipedia to understand what is less controversial information. 

Fernanda Viega Iraq Entry StudyBetter representation of authorship and changes. I wrote last month about how difficult it is to identify the source of one part of an article. Readers should be able to see a list of contributors. Visualization of contributions would help understand who contributed the bulk of an article or repeatedly changed an article to assert a particular view of the topic. Fernanda Viega has an excellent visualization of Wikipedia contributions that should be adopted by the site. Her analysis of the Chocolate entry, for example, shows how a small group of editors erased correct information until the contributor who had inserted it just gave up. In the visualization above, Viega's study of the Iraq entry in Wikipedia shows that the whole article was deleted (the black strip that breaks the color bands) and replaced with a rewritten version at one point.

Knowing who made changes and being able to investigate contributors' conflicts is key to informed readership. 

Identity can be pseudonymous. It doesn't matter if the contributor is "Zyclops" or "Robert J. Knowitall, Ph.D.," as long as the reader can look into the contributors' expertise, what they contribute to and how their contributions are accepted by other editors. It helps them make a judgment about whether to take the information with a small grain or large rock of salt. Contrary to the assertion that all articles should be taken with a grain of salt, some need to be viewed with deepest skepticism, so we have to arm the reader to make those decisions for themselves.

Addresses should be displayed, too, so that someone using the same address for different accounts can't game the system by appearing to be different people endorsing the same idea. 

Anonymity may sound great, but we're not talking about state secrets. Wikipedia is a public record of human knowledge, so be on the record (even if it is pseudonymously). It feels pretty good to be recognized, under whatever name you choose, for meaningful contributions, which is why David Weinberger's suggestion that "arrogance, individual heroism, accountability and discipline" are elements of the institutions of knowledge propagation that can be abandoned in favor of "modesty" is misguided. Society happens on the record, even when the table is set privately. The downside—and there has to be one—is the writers can be ridiculed for dumb mistakes. Welcome to my world. All you can do is demand rational critiques from others and ignore or mock invective.

Solicit input, don't wait for it. The Wikipedia needs to reach out much more actively to experts in many fields. They should be invited to edit and contribute, because they will also increase the reach Wikipedia has in specialized communities that reflect deep study and conflicting opinions that will make articles richer. I read several academic history mailing lists where experts in, for example, Gilded Age economic history, have never been invited to participate and are reluctant to because of the lack of transparent governance and editing practices I discussed in the previous posting about Wikipedia.

In a world where publishing is important to the dissemination of ideas, academics still seek new channels for their articles and would, I believe, be happy to have clear guidelines and the confidence to participate in Wikipedia.

Wikipedia administrators, in addition to taking responsibility for topics, need to adopt the practice of reaching out to people with complimentary expertise.

Remember, it's a resource, not just a community. Wikipedians must remember that, even if they work hard on the Wikipedia, the users of the information are the readers. The readers, today and in the future, are your customers. The poorest entries in Wikipedia reflect the self-absorption of a poor writer as much as, or more than, the want of an editor.

The vaunted "social process" of editing Wikipedia is not very different from previous forms of editing. Instead of an editor calling and author and saying "I don't think you got this across as clearly as you liked" someone can just change the content. But, like all human processes of creation, both modes of editing involve give-and-take. Showing how that process of compromise happens in Wikipedia, rather than keeping it hidden as it is in traditional publishing, would be a great step forward in transparency.

Disclaimers, disclaimers, disclaimers. I agree with David Weinberger and some Wikipedians that there should be a disclaimer on every page of the site saying that students shouldn't cite the articles without doing their own research. The point is not to diminish the value of the Wikipedia, but to encourage skepticism and critical reading by children and adults.

The other element of disclaimer has to do with how Wikipedia plans to license its content to other sites. If Wikipedia intends, as it seems to, to become the encyclopedia of record for the Internet with versions of its content displayed on third-party sites, that content has to be accompanied by these disclaimers, as well. It may make the text less attractive to partners, but that's the cost of being upfront about your principles. 

Dedicate resources to ease of monitoring. Jon Udell also calls for RSS feeds of Wikipedia articles. This is critical to allowing people with an interest in the representation of a particular topic to monitor changes. People should not have to visit Wikipedia to keep up on changes. Alerts should also include authorship information, so that coordinated efforts to control content are more easily identified. PR people are sure to use Wikipedia to influence market views of issues related to their clients' products and services, so if all that is available about an editor is an IP address, provide address resolution to show readers where the changes are coming from (e.g., if Microsoft.com addresses are changing Windows- or Linux-related articles, for example).

Next, I'll turn to the question of relevance and information overload. The infinite storage and bandwidth of the Net is no excuse for mindless errata becoming part of an encyclopedic canon.

Topics: Browser

About

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran journalist, media executive and entrepreneur. He was editor of the ground-breaking Digital Media newsletter in the 1990s and a frequent contributor to ZDNet over the years. He led development of the first Web audio/video news network at ON24, sat on the board of Electric Classifieds Inc. and Match.com, and wor... Full Bio

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