Thursday, March 29, 2007

Wikipedia and Web 2.0

Over on the NT Gateway Weblog, Mark Goodacre recently offered a Defence of Wikipedia, Jim West soon thundered his reply. Not surprising to any long time reader of the good Doc West's blog, his reply was overwhelmingly negative. So who's right? Longtime readers of my blog will not be surprised that my Linux loving, Web 2.0 embracing heart falls solidly on Goodacre's side.

Let's take a look at two points Goodacre raises, and West's comments on them. (Goodacre in Red, West in Green, to make for easier reading):

Fear of Wikipedia will eventually catch up on critical academics in the same way that fear of "the internet" caught up with academics who were complaining about it ten years ago. In due course, broadsides against Wikipedia may look as absurd as broadsides against "the internet" now look.

West replies:

I don’t think it’s fear that causes many to disdain Wiki. It’s disdain. Disdain because Wiki are “edit-able” by any Tom, Dick, or Harry who may, or may not, know what the devil they are talking about. Disdain, further, of having to debunk even more student minded nonsense than they must already.

West has missed the fundamental point of Goodacre's post--he must have, else he wouldn't be expressing precisely the concern Goodacre was condemning. Yes, any "Tom, Dick or Harry" can edit a page. It is, without question, important to underline that potential hole in any Wikipedia article. But most Toms, Dicks and Harrys don't do so. Most edit only articles they feel they have something to offer on, and when they have over-estimated the value of their contribution, most articles are editted accordingly. Stephen Colbert might still save the elephant from time to time, but he never saves it for long.

This isn't to say that Wikipedia is perfect, or that mistakes aren't going to slip through. Most of those mistakes are actually errors made by people who don't know better. They're never going to know better if you don't show them. If the Jim Wests of the world invested as much time sharing their expertise on projects like Wikipedia as they do deriding it, Wikipedia's value would increase exponentially. Not only would it, it routinely does. To be sure, other errors are the product of people poisoning the drinking water, spewing whatever nonsense they'd like. Dismissing the process because of the few seems patently absurd to me.

Also neglected is the importance of crowd dynamics in information. One person will not accurately guess the weight of a cow. The median of 1000 guesses is usually pretty close. Group generated information is usually self-correcting. The economy of the entire Western world is based on that point. To be sure, there are times when the group fails--the crowd becomes a lynch mob--but that doesn't undermine the fundamental point of it. Wikipedia institutes checks against that (locking pages, for example), the same way the stock market does (trade shutoffs). And just as the market is usually a pretty good assessment of a company's worth, the Wikipedia community usually provides a pretty good resource. There will be failures, of course, but those will result in further checks and balances, which will further increase its value.

On this point--crowd dynamics--Wikipedia slaughters conventional encyclopedias in terms of value. Wikipedia articles--particularly those that have undergone extensive revision (the one's with more "Toms, Dicks and Harrys"), will give you a more balanced view than Brittanica. Brittanica reflects the views of one author, and try as he might, anyone who thinks that their presentation is freed from their own biases is only fooling themselves. Wikipedia provides a means for those biases to balance each other.

But West is nonetheless fundamentally correct on one point: Wikipedia shouldn't be a source anymore than a Google results page should. But it will point you to sources.

(2) One of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it is much more up-to-date than its print counterparts. Regularly, almost always, students will find much fresher material in Wikipedia than they will in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is also, of course, becoming ever more comprehensive.

“Up to date” misinformation is worse than, or at least as bad as, out of date good information. Either way, both are misinforming.

West isn't simply wrong on this point, he's dead wrong. The most up to date information on Wikipedia is almost always fuelled by current events, or recent publications, and almost always accurate. Not universally, but usually. For an easy example, once Deep Throat was exposed, Wikipedia had the information on its entry on Deep Throat within hours. Brittanica users would wait another year.

But its not only currency where Wikipedia has a clear advantage, it's also breadth. Compare Wikipedia's entry on The New Perspective on Paul with Brittanica's. Wikipedia's is accurate, to the point, and provides solid reference material and additional reading in the close. It is the ideal encyclopedia article. Comparison to Brittanica is easy: It has no entry. Brittanica will probably continue to have no entry, Wikipedia's will probably continue to get better.

Wikipedia is the quintessential example of the information age in general, and Web 2.0 in particular. Embracing it and engaging will inherently affect its course. Digging your heels in and proclaiming your disdain for it will accomplish nothing. Those like West will come around, or they'll fade into obsolecence, or worse, irrelevance. The good doc's a smart guy, I'm sure he'll see the light before that happens.

Goodacre returns fire and Loren Rosson enters the fray.

Update Redux
Jim West accepts Goodacre's challenge

Further Update
Duane Smith gets in on the act over on Abnormal Interests


Stephen C. Carlson said...

Good to see you blogging, and your baby is a cutie.

By the way, thanks for the good points on Wikipedia.

Rick Sumner said...

Thanks for the kind words Stephen!

I'm of the rather biased opinion that my little girl's about the cutest baby ever. A fair assessment? Probably not. But since when are dads supposed to be objective about such things?

Kevin Rosero said...

Good to see your arguments on this topic, I really agree 100%. Wikipedia is a great resource for those who are not swimming in resources. As you say, it should not be treated as a source. But it's a resource, and I'm very glad for it.

Anonymous said...

I love it! Very creative!That's actually really cool.