Wikipedia Wars

Sean Lynch and John Lopez are both more or less correct about Wikipedia, though they might not agree with each other. Lopez:

Wikipedia is the Internet equivalent of a public toilet. Anyone can use the facilities, including that subset of folks who simply splash feces around for the fun of it, or who are too dumb or ill-bred to get everything inside the rim.

That’s true and it’s a serious problem, but it’s not entirely an insurmountable one. The same could be said of the Internet as a whole, but, while there are plenty of places online where feces-splashing seems to be the primary objective, there are also plenty of quality websites that provide content you can’t find anywhere else. The same goes for Wikipedia. As long as you know going in what Wikipedia is and how it works, it’s easy to use it as an effective tool. For example, you’d probably be better off asking a 5-year-old about some controversial political or social question than looking it up on Wikipedia, because the only people with both the time to write a long Wikipedia entry about something controversial and the perseverance to defend it against every edit are true-believers pushing an agenda. But I’ve almost always found the Wikipedia articles on advanced math topics accurate and useful; to pick an example more or less at random, the article on fiber bundles is nice and straightforward. Obviously, if you’re trying to really do anything with fiber bundles, you need to look in a textbook, but you wouldn’t use a Britannica article as the sole basis for your research, either (and I’m pretty sure the phrase “fiber bundle” doesn’t appear in the Britannica or any other encyclopedia).

That having been said, Lopez’ point about the public goods problem is real, especially since the real experts aren’t wasting their time with Wikipedia in the first place:

Wikipedians on the other hand are busy correcting extra plurals or adding “Wikilinks? to their entry, because they lack both the motivation and the aptitude to add content. And I’m not about to help them, since I have better things to do than reproduce material from expert sources that’re only a mouse click away from anyone who gives half a damn.

Of course, real experts probably aren’t wasting their time with the Britannica, either, but the problem is more extreme with the Wikipedia. In fact, I would tend to agree with Lynch that this is Wikipedia’s biggest problem:

The reason Wikipedia is not as good as it could be is because of its incestuous nature. External links are discouraged in favor of internal links to other content within Wikipedia. The major problem with this is that the smartest experts in any given field probably have their own web sites and can’t be bothered to write in Wikipedia, so why should random people be paraphrasing information that’s already freely available elsewhere? Decentralized knowledge is not about letting anyone edit your one site. It’s about finding and linking to the best content that’s available. The best most people writing on Wikipedia do is paraphrase what they find elsewhere. If paraphrasing is so great why do we need hyperlinks in the first place?

Having participated in and witnessed innumerable debates about Wikipedia over the last couple of years, I can be pretty confident in asserting that Wikipedia consistently gets highest marks for (a) timeliness (b) breadth and (c) ease of use. These are all areas where Wikipedia easily beats the Britannica‘s pants off; sure the Britannica‘s article on Hurricane Katrina will probably be better-written and more accurate when it gets published in 2007, but it won’t be free and searchable, wasn’t available when people were really interested in the subject and probably won’t try to break down all the hurricane-related casualties by county. I’m not saying Wikipedia is better than the Britannica, just that there are some things it does better.

Given the fact that Wikipedia has these inherent advantages, I find it odd that its entire modus operandi seems to be predicated on trying to replicate the Britannica model of being a one-stop source of information. Much better, as Lynch points out, to emphasize their other big advantage over the Britannica: hyperlinks. I’m sure the official discouragement of linking off-site is because the folks at Wikimedia don’t want their baby to become “just another search engine” that gets swallowed up and spit out by Google and Yahoo, but (a) there are a lot worse examples to follow than Google’s and (b) the search-engine market is due for some serious diversification. Using Google is often a real crapshoot; for example, if you’re looking for “fiber product,” you’ll get 8 pages of stuff about the textile industry before the first relevant link appears. Google realizes this, which is why it was a smart move to separate Google Print, Google Scholar and Google Maps (which they’re now calling Google Local) from the regular web search. Just taking my own experience, while I still use Google for general search purposes, I find myself using Google Print, Google Scholar, A9 maps, IceRocket, Technorati, the Internet Archive, memeorandum, IMDB, Mathworld, JSTOR, Whois and, yes, Wikipedia all the time, because each is good at finding certain things I’m interested in (and if I ever come across a good sports-specific search engine, I’ll use that frequently, too). And let me tell you, there’s definitely a niche for the Wikipedia that Lynch envisions:

If Wikipedia had strived to be an editable-by-anyone collection of links to the best information and annotations of those links, it would be much more useful than it is now.

4 Responses to “Wikipedia Wars”

  1. John T. Kennedy Says:

    “The same could be said of the Internet as a whole, but, while there are plenty of places online where feces-splashing seems to be the primary objective, there are also plenty of quality websites that provide content you can’t find anywhere else.”

    Sure, but a quality website is rarely a commons. There’s usually considerably more private oversight of the main content then at wikipedia.

  2. shonk Says:

    Sure, but the analogy I was trying to make is that the Internet itself, viewed as a whole, is sort of a commons. The analogy obviously isn’t perfect, because nobody can really “own” an article on Wikipedia in the same way that I own this website, though there are lots of Wikipedia articles that are de facto owned by people, whether it be because someone did such a good job on the article that nobody makes any serious alterations, because other contributors respect them or because they devote the time and energy to reverting any and all edits back to their version.

    Anyway, my comment was a sort of toss-off, imperfect analogy (as I’d assumed everybody realized); the point I was making still stands: on both the Internet as a whole and on Wikipedia, there are lots of useless pages, but plenty of good ones if you know where to look.

  3. John T. Kennedy Says:

    And my point is the good pages strongly tend to be where private control dominates.

    The de facto ownership you ascribe to wiki articles is inefficient. Respect is not terribly effective protection on a wiki because it only takes one dope to trash a page. Writng on things which interest few is of limited value. Reverting edits made by dopes is inefficent.

  4. shonk Says:

    I absolutely agree that it is inefficient, which is why I agree with Lynch that Wikipedia would be more useful if it served as a searchable database of links to other (and therefore more efficiently owned) pages.

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