Less Wikipedia will be more

The flaws of Wikipedia, the recent and exciting example of what a World Wide Web can become, are the same mistakes of inexperience that marks writers and societies. More views, more discipline and greater transparency can make it an important departure from the past, but the signs aren't good.

This, the third installment of my commentary [see previous installment] about how to improve Wikipedia, was guaranteed by me to offend just about everyone. I'm not aiming to offend, but contradictory perspectives and experience often come off as condescending to those eager to think they know everything after gaining a little knowledge, so here goes....

Writers who get paid by the word often write too much. Wikipedia contributors, who earn community trust through the volume and character of their work on the collaborative encyclopedia, have little incentive to restrain their enthusiasm, even when it goes wrong or too long. Of course, the Wikipedia community, like every creative group before, will change. If it embraces more self-discipline it could go far. But not all the signs are good.

Here's a fact: Denis Diderot, leader of the French Encyclopedists, is not the subject of an article among the 70,000 entries in the Encyclopedie. By contrast, The main form of social participation these days is to find and agree with a tribe, where collective identity creates a comfortable coccoon, rather than wrestle with big ideas and great truths that define one’s individual place in the world. Jimmy Wales, the founder of the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates the Wikipedia, is the subject of several articles in the Wikipedia, including a biographical entry (currently locked to prevent "vandalism"), an article about his involvement in adult publishing (his company, Bomis, published exactly 54,658 pictures of women, according to Wikipedia), a long page of comments about the meaning of Wales' involvement with Bomis, an "exclusive interview" with Wales by Wikinews (also a project of the Wikimedia Foundation), a list of "American Entrepreneurs" (only 166 American entrepreneurs are listed, surely that's an area that needs some more work—Paris Hilton is listed, but Henry Ford and Thomas Edison are not), and a whole lot more.

The Wales-intensity of Wikipedia—as well as the youth and music culture emphasis of the community, to name some other passions reflected by the site—is evidence that Wikipedia's culture is at least somewhat self-absorbed, like a young writer still learning the craft and talking too much about her own experience rather than connecting with the audience's experience. Wikipedia can and, hopefully, will get better. Otherwise, it will pass into history as a nice idea that failed to address anyone's needs other than the authors' desire for community.

Flawed Wikipedia entries—like a lot of books, too—mainly suffer from being packed with a lot of errata presented with no context. They just add to the noise. As I pointed out the other day, the 2004 U.S. Presidential Campaign entry in Wikipedia makes the egregious claim that President Bush's and Senator Kerry's military service were the main issues of the election. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was just noise added to the campaign, rather than an issue of policy that was debated. It became an "issue" in Wikipedia because the article lacks context while seeking to provide what the writers think is the whole objective truth from their necessarily limited perspectives.

Presenting a comprehensive view of things in a single article allows Wikipedians to deflect critics with the defense that the community produces its most objective rendering of facts just as well as a traditional encyclopedia. In the case of the 2004 election article, however, even the scope of the facts demonstrates how limited the views of an eager group or individual writer may be.  The article's issues section contains 334 words, mentions Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Saddam Hussein (though his name is misspelled), but nothing on the national debt, Social Security reform, education, and domestic security.

John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, a frequently banned book these days, has come back to me repeatedly as I've considered this argument. He asked how, given the imperfect nature of human knowledge, society could ensure people had the raw material to make informed and enlightened decisions on issues of public and personal importance. His answer is diversity of opinion completely unlimited, with the final decision about what to think or believe resting with the individual rather than the community.

Unfortunately, Wikipedians seem to deploy themselves only on what they want to research or write about based on their own sense of the topic, so the community has a lot of say about what's to be covered. It doesn't help that the community is very defensive about criticism. Certainly there are more than 166 American entrepreneurs, but no one apparently even wants to populate a list that needs to be researched. Likewise, there are lists of "stub" articles, such as the American people stubs page which, for some reason, includes me on the list, apparently generated but never pursued.

Now, I am the first one to admit that an article about me is not something the encyclopedia needs to include. I would like to see Wikipedians working a lot more on articles that actually matter, both to get them right (e.g., the poor explanation of the issues in the 2004 election) and to cut out the stuff that is simply noise, such as the extensive coverage of Jimmy Wales' life and exploits, in order to prevent Wikipedia from being a self-serving propagator of its own culture that seeks to replace the previous "flawed" one.

Sloppy writing and self-indulgence distract the reader from information that is really important, whether you are writing poetry, history or an encyclopedia. I suggested adding an editorial process and appeals to "experts" in the previous posting about Wikipedia. Here I'd add that the Wikipedians who advocate a "stable version" of the text are tacitly acknowledging that there is a lot of crap to be weeded out to be useful for most readers. 

The Wikipedia would also benefit from a collective recognition that simply knowing about someone's work, like my writing, doesn't make it worthy of an encyclopedia entry. Information overload is easy, wisdom is hard, to paraphrase Edmund Gwenn. That said, in the interest of diversity, it's important that anyone be able to create a new article. A solution to this problem of complexity, I think, would be to turn the Wikipedia into an API-accessible system that facilitated filtering by people and institutions. This would allow endorsement of particular articles by readers and experts without requiring they navigate the community creating the reference material. It would solve Wikipedia's stable version problem by off-loading judgments about accuracy to third parties with no investment in the content of Wikipedia. These narrower views would impose some context that made even flawed entries more useful, albeit there will be good and bad uses.

In short, though, some hard and unpleasant work on topics that don't always jangle writers' intellectual spurs would make Wikipedia much better. 

Wikipedia isn't alone in its faults. Blogs and mainstream media catering to brandable audience demographics manage to commit all these errors of omission and groupthink, too. This is because the main form of social participation these days is to find and agree with a tribe, where collective identity creates a comfortable cocoon, rather than wrestle with big ideas and great truths that define one's individual place in the world. Suffice to say I think we live in extraordinarily cowardly times because agreement is prized more than debate.

One of the commenters on a previous posting, mik3cap, wrote that Wikipedia is a conversation of 700,000 editors and authors with the virtue that, through that magical thing called "emergence," reflects the majority view or, as he called it, "consensual reality." Progress invariably occurs outside that mainstream, so Wikipedia seems destined to exist at the back of the human parade if it is going to cling to the justification that it reflects an objective reality culled from the writings and edits of some tiny percentage of humanity.

Alas, there is no easy solution and I don't want to give thousands of hours to Wikipedia when the governance is so difficult to understand and the work may be obliterated because it doesn't conform to the community's ideas. Wikipedia has staked its future on being a center for an alternative and ostensibly emergent reality, but for those of us who are never comfortable joining a club that would have us, it's just another monolith. If Wikipedia did accommodate multiple views better it might not devolve into catering to all and being trusted by none, as commenter Dave F suggested. That is a very real possibility, but because my mission is to try to find ways to improve Wikipedia not just tear it down, I do think that a Wikipedia built on diverse articles on any topic combined with an editorial process and APIs to facilitate community indexing and filtering would be as big step in the right direction. And, then, there will just be more work to do in the midst of a world with no simple answers.

In the end, there's only the attempt to make the world better. I stand with Mill:

"In this age, the mere example of nonconformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service.... There is no reason that all human existence should be constructed on some one or some small number of patterns."