The real issue: Wikipedia can be better

The real issue: Wikipedia can be better

Summary: The recent storms of criticism, counter-criticism and defenses of Wikipedia were actually productive. Too bad they've died down, because they'll make Wikipedia better.


 This is the first in a series of postings about how to make Wikipedia, one of the most important and positive innovations in recent years, better. I know it will be seen by Wikipedians as negative criticism, but it's constructive criticism. Part Two will provide specific suggestions about the editorial process and presentation, while Part Three will just plain make some Wikipedians angry. But they need to be kept on their toes, because they're creating something very powerful. [Disclosure: Jimmy Wales and I are advisors of have relationships with wiki developer Socialtext. He is a director and I am an advisor.]

Dust-up, flare-up, flame war—none do justice to the storm over Wikipedia that erupted just before the holidays. Events just took off after a number of controversial articles were called out by: John Seigenthaler's complaint in a USA Today editorial about allegations in his Wikipedia profile that he participated in a conspiracy to murder Robert Kennedy; podcaster Adam Curry's gratuitous editing of the Wikipedia entry on the history of podcasting to amplify his role, and; Wikipedia's co-founder, Jimmy Wales, went on a PR blitz to control the damage that a gleefully triumphant mainstream media might do with these inconvenient realities.

The argument was largely put to rest by a Nature article, which compared the  accuracy of Wikipedia articles and those of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the same scientific subjects. It found that the two pedia had the same number of major mistakes in the sampled pairs of articles while Wikipedia had approximately 32 percent more minor factual errors than Britannica.

"I'm pleased," Wales told Nature with a note of finality. "Our goal is to get to Britannica quality, or better." So much for this round, in other words.

This isn't the correct conclusion to the debate, it should only be the beginning. Comparing Wikipedia to Encycolpedia Britannica and concluding that they are comparable and, therefore, that Wikipedia is better because it allows more democratic access to authors is like concluding that a mule is superior to a hinny because the former is more common than the latter. For the record, a mule's parents are a female horse and a male donkey, while a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey and less common than mules.

Then, there is the problem of the ponderous and error-riddled articles in any encyclopedia published since Denis Diderot passed from this mortal coil. Seriously, when was the last time you used an encyclopedia to definitively answer a question of science, culture or history? I'd wager that for most of us, the encyclopedia was broken long before Wikipedia came along to compete with it. So, if the Wikipedia's standard is merely to equal a previously bankrupt form, what progress is that?

I think that Wikipedia's raison d'etre is founded on excellent grounds, that anyone should be able to contribute to a single record of the knowledge shared by humanity. It's incredibly productive to create a proving ground for knowledge.

That act of creation, however, is just one small step. The processes for collecting and publishing knowledge are profoundly important to the resulting resource if teachers, students and citizens are going to rely on it for information in any way, even with the most skeptical eye, because a reference work like Wikipedia becomes the starting point for research.

I commend Wales and his fellow Wikipedians for saying that the site's content should not be relied on or cited as authoritative. But, when that kind of humility becomes the Wikipedia's chief defense, as it does in David Weinberger's Why the media can't get Wikipedia right, the world's faced with either taking or leaving the site at face value. And, as the critics have asked to repeated choruses of "you just don't get it," why not just ignore Wikipedia if the creators aren't dedicated to being accurate and authoritative?

David Weinberger writes:


"The media — amplifying our general cultural assumptions — have come to expect knowledge to be coupled with arrogance1 : If you claim to know X, then you've also been claiming that you're right and those who disagree are wrong.  A leather-bound, published encyclopedia trades on this aura of utter rightness (as does a freebie e-newsletter, albeit it to a lesser degree). The media have a cognitive problem with a publisher of knowledge that modestly does not claim perfect reliability, does not back up that claim through a chain of credentialed individuals, and that does not believe the best way to assure the quality of knowledge is by disciplining individuals for their failures. Arrogance, individual heroism, accountability and discipline ... those have been the hallmarks of the institutions that propagate knowledge."
There's a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in that last sentence, as individual heroism, accountability and discipline are not the worst things to install in a creative process. If a little arrogance is the price, then so be it. It's how you manage that arrogance that, as Weinberger also writes, "the balance of knowing shifts from the individual to the social process."

Since Wikipedia is pushing toward a "1.0 version" of "validated articles" that can be published on CD, DVD or through other sites that choose to use Wikipedia content as reference material, the encyclopedia is looking more like those old leather behemoths in authoritative intent than a don't-cite, don't-sell community. 

Wikipedia's processes are opaque, at best. There's nothing stopping anyone from getting involved, but the experience—I write having joined some early IRC chats about the Wikinews project, in which Jimmy Wales told me I "just don't get the process"—is like entering the Masonic order. Here's where the egalitarian PR doesn't jive with the reality, which is that there are mysteries to be learned and, at least as I've seen it, those mysteries are closely held by Wales and early Wikipedians. How one climbs the ladder toward the Wikipedia version of 32nd Degree Mason is not immediately evident or offered. Instead, if you visit the Community Portal page, there is a lot you can do, but nothing about how to understand the governance of Wikipedia, let alone get involved.

For example, in the FAQ about how to become an admin on Wikipedia, you learn: "It's easy. First, you need a user account. Then, make useful edits over a period of time. In this way, you prove to the community that you are here in good faith." There's nothing there about what constitutes good faith. If simply being in the community is the only criterion for what is referred to as "power" to delete articles and block users, then the community is only a self-validating system that eliminates dissenting opinion and not really susceptible to change. Meanwhile, an elite retains ultimate control.

It's a lot like the Catholic Church, if you ask me. Priests get to read all ideas and pass judgment on what the flock hears (but cannot read without priestly interpretation), while even the priests have to rely on intercessions by God—or the Pope's indigestion at bedtime—for changes to the doctrine they preach. On Wikipedia, this is the way it is:

"Administrators monitor each other; nearly all admin powers are completely reversible by any other admin (including page deletions, lockings, and IP bannings, but not currently including deletion of uploaded files). The Arbitration Committee also has the power to discipline administrators, and has done so in several cases. In a truly rare case the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, or even Jimbo Wales, could step in. In any case, you have the RightToFork and the RightToLeave."

So much for well-defined and democratic community standards. 

Look, every time I engage the Wikipedians, I hear some variation on "You just don't get it." That's their public stand, as well, and it is the wrong one if they really want to make a positive contribution to human knowledge, because an open, egalitarian encyclopedia should be transparently governed and inviting to outsiders. If it isn't trying to be so, then it should acknowledge that it is a closed club with opaque guidelines for membership.

I know that's not what Wikipedians want to be, so here's my first piece of advice: Change. Make the entire process of finding out how to get involved and what the standards of the community are easily discoverable. Turn your message to the world away from the "you outsiders don't get it" to "Here's how it works, here's how easy it is to get involved and have some influence on the direction of the community and the knowledge resource we're building." Of course, that's more easily said than done, because it requires that Wikipedia first deal with the convoluted paths to power and the reality of its established elite. That critical self-reflection would be worth it.

See: Making Wikipedia better, Part II


Topic: CXO

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  • The difference between Wikipedia and Britannica...

    Mr. Ratcliffe makes an excellent point about Wikipedia needing some transparancy. At the end of the day though, I will never trust Wikipedia. Why? Let me give some examples of where Wikipedia falls short compared to a traditional reference book:

    * Anyone can edit. What does this mean? It means that it is relatively trivial to have a worm or virus out there that fills Wikipedia with bad content. Give it a bit of a time delay between edits/posts to not look like spamming, give it some randomness, give it enough AI to make subtle but damaging changes (for example, change all dates it encounters by a minor amount; in the case of an exact date, change it by a day, for a year, add or subtract a year). There are already tons of blog bots out there. It's only a small leap in gluing together existing code to, say, combine Sober with a blog bot plus a few changes here and there to render Wikipedia useless within a month.

    * Lack of authority. A reference source is only as good as the community perceives it. Online resources already have a bad name. Wikipedia's very public problem have not only smashed its credibility, rightly or wrongly, but tarnished the reputation of online data even further. It is pretty irrelevant how good Wikipedia actually is, if college professors fail students for using it.

    * Encyclopedias are pretty worthless as reference sources to begin with. I cannot recall ever reading a serious academic or scientific paper, critique, or anything else above the junior high school level that quoted an encyclopedia of any variety. The encyclopedia is a good place to get a general feel for a topic, and maybe where to start research. It is not to be used as a reference source in and of itself.

    * Wikipedia, for all of its comprehensiveness, has some dangerous shortsightedness. It is a major failure that the only people who care to contribute to Wikipedia are the fatally online hip. Take a look at their listing of famous movie quotes. It is weighted very strongly towards the last decade, plus classic sci-fi, as well as a few additional classics. That's a great example of what I mean. Wikiepdia's much vaunted comprehensiveness obeys the whims of the audience. A traditional reference guide, such as the Britannica, was not put together by people who only research what they felt like. They researched what they were paid to research.

    These are just a few of the reasons why Wikipedia will never gain any traction for real research. It's a great place for me to go to learn about the differences between Swedish black metal, Norwegian death metal, and heavy metal (not to be confused with speed metal, thrash metal, nu-metal, metalcore, troll metal, and the other gigantic list of "metal" listed on there), but that's about it.

    Justin James
  • I think you're right

    I think, however, that the youth-oriented focus of Wikipedia will be corrected by the time the principals are old enough to be the parents of teenagers (another 10-15 years, I suspect); it may take time, but biases of this sort do tend to be self-correcting.

    The more serious problems are:

    1. Arrogance (as you stated). If the critics "just don't get it", then the fault lies with those who failed to explain the process clearly; or worse, created a process that is more convoluted than is required.

    2. Ideology (this is the hardest one to fix). The underlying premises of the Wiki process are that the vast majority of its contributors are fundementally honest, are humble enough to only contribute what they know, and that one person's opinion is as good as another's (the first two are probably false, the third definitely is). It's good old-fashioned populism at its most idealistic and is no way to run an encyclopedia (too easy to abuse, either delibrately, or through ignorance). The process has clearly been abused and will continue to be abused until/unless effective QC procedures are put into place. I don't know how this can be done without a major efficiency hit, but the rule has to be that anyone can contribute, but nothing appears until it has been reviewed by someone regarded by those in charge (the editors) as trustworthy.

    I like your blog and hope to see it continue for years to come. I look forward to the remaining installments on the Wikipedia issue.
    John L. Ries
    • Correction

      The youth orientation was jmjames' point. My apologies.
      John L. Ries
  • Wikipedia is a complete farce

    Wikipedia is much, much worse than you indicate. The inside elites are mostly techno-geek know-nothings who have no understanding of historical research, decent writing or objectivity. Their famous Neutral Point of View means nothing more than "agree with us or we'll delete it."

    They permit the editing of articles in which they have little or no interest, but woe to anyone who attempts to add documented information (textbook citations, magazine, newspaper articles, etc.) that contradicts their beliefs.

    The PR is completely mis-leading, but none of the big media outlets will complain because Wikipedia administrators group-think along the same lines the MSM does. If anyone wants to know what the MSM looks like when it goes electronic, just read Wikipedia.
    • It is humourous

      I totally agree with your point the validity of many of the articles is mitigated by the fact that many are psuedoscietists and falsehistorians It is hard to read many of what passes for fact without signifying that it is a particular opinion.

      Further I just had to say the article which we are commenting on has a factual flaw in that it speaks of Wikipedia being like the Catholic Church and obviously this person has not been in a church for at least thirty years because the vast amount of focus groups that the church has created during this time has resulted in opinion changes and doctrine changes all generated by non priests, so unless you wish to be viewed as wikipedia apply real research before you post next time.
  • Wikipedia Editors are s Bad for Novice Entrants and Wikipedia in general

    Up to 6 months ago we financially contributed funds to Wikipedia but no more, for we thought that it was a good idea and where its thinking was in unison with our own at that time - using knowledge for the good of humankind. When we as novices tried to place our Swiss charity within Wikipedia we were absolutely savaged by the editors. They in fact blocked our right of reply, which is documented by themselves.
    Thereafter we even sent our registration documents via email to the then executive director of Wikimedia, the holding organization, to prove that our international group was registered as a Swiss charity. He did nothing at all. A few months later he resigned with another top Wikimedia executive, 'Jimbo's second in command. The greatest problem with Wikipedia that we now find is that they are highly selective in who should place information and where therefore they will never really have a web-based encyclopaedia that is unbiased and totally factual. It is totally at the whims of the few enlightened ones who control what should be a great reference. Unfortunately we now see that it is not.

    For anyone interested further on how Wikipedia editors work, the full account including all emails will be part of our next web newsletter 'Scientific Discovery'. It will be on-line by the end of July 2007. Overall, It is time we feel that Wikipedia looked internally at itself and that they concluded that they have major problems with the way they treat new entrants. This analysis should especially be directed towards the attitude of their editors, who remove the right of reply and delete super-quick for reasons not based on evidence but only hearsay. By the way also, the Wikipedian Editor Zoe who first blocked us and the initial instigator of all the basic trouble, fell out with 'Jimbo' and where she as well left a few months later. Apparently she had made a vendetta against a certain professor according to 'Jimbo's' opinion. Thereafter she took her bat and ball away and has never been seen since. I believe she also threatened the embattled professor at the time - the web link is

    Dr. David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation Charity
    Bern, Switzerland