The real issue: Wikipedia can be better

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



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