Wiki Gathering

Over at Salon, they have an interview with David Weinberger, whose new book, Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, is making quite a stir. Towards the end of the interview (all of which is great) he has a revolutionary idea:

So should you believe what’s in Wikipedia? Jimmie Wales, its founder, would say no, not without checking. But I don’t think that’s going to be the final answer. Because we don’t have time to do more work. Today we work to believe what’s in the encyclopedia, tomorrow we have to work to believe what’s in the newspaper, what the sports score is, whether the recipe we just found online will in fact kill us. So we will evolve trust mechanisms that will give us the shortcuts we need.

We’ve already evolved tons of them, but these will occur at the metadata level. So, for example, there’s no reason that the International Astronomical Union couldn’t go through Wikipedia, find the articles about astronomy, and find the versions of those articlesthat it thinks are right. Can’t find one? Fix it up and make it right and point to that one. And it would build its own astronomical Wikipedia that is nothing but a metadata level. And if you’re a school kid and you want to know the truth about Jupiter, you go to the IAU Wikipedia, which only contains the pages that they certify. So there’s the authority again, but it’s pointing at other stuff.

We get so caught up in the arguments over whether or not Wikipedia or the Britanica is a resource worthy of our praise and use, that we forget to actually use it. Wikipedia, like any encyclopedia, is a basic level resource. It’s there to collect facts in one place so you don’t spend years trying to figure out what day Bonnie and Clyde were killed. It’s right there. Maybe some of the details are obscure but for your basic fact checking, everything you need is there. Why not, in the case of more complicated ideas, do what Weinberger suggested and make a topic-centered critical version of Wikipedia?

This is clearly the next step. Take what Wikipedia has done and expand it into a hybrid; an authoritative wiki. we don’t need just one that replaces the crusty old Britannica– we need dozens, one elaborate cooperative wiki, built and maintained by professionals in a given field to help the public and themselves keep abreast of what’s going on in that field. Wikipedia will always be there if you want a recap of the latest Doctor Who episode but when you want to know why Pluto is no longer a planet, wouldn’t it be great to have an IAU Wiki with an article by Neil deGrasse Tyson? Or perhaps an article by Stephen Hawking explaining the latest information on the Big Bang? Now, imagine that we have dozens of these authoritative wikis on every subject and field imaginable. We’d be the smartest monkeys in the universe.

How Great Is Wikipedia?

This question gets asked a lot. We librarians have criteria for evaluating a resource: reliability (Wikipedia is always there), authoritativeness (check out the recent study published a few months back in Nature), depth (1 million plus articles and growing daily) and specificity.

this last one is key. It measures how much a resource know sits audience, and how well the contributers provide that need. It’s a gage of how much passion the contributors have for their subject. So, how specific is Wikipedia?

Today I found this article: Gorillas in Silver Age Comics.

It’s that specific.

Wikipedia, Again

About two weeks ago I wrote about Paul Boutin’s critique of Wikipedia at Slate, in which he criticizes Wikipedia for not working at the same level as Encarta, or other web based encylopedias.* As Bryan pointed out in comments, Microsoft owns Encarta. I suggested that they also own Slate. Well, this morning, I received an e-mail from the author:

Hi Keith,

I enjoy a good open-source rant as much as the next guy, but Slate is owned by The Washington Post Company.


I responded thusly:


Thanks for the fact check. Though, you can understand my confusion, seeing as how MSN is all over the site, including in the URL. And while the Washington Post Co. owns Slate (and apparently offers some of their stellar advice when it comes to editorial decisions), Bill Gates is obviously paying the bills in the form of heavy advertising. Perhaps if Slate (and the Washington Post) didn’t let commercial interest supersede their facts, I and others would be more inclined to trust their respective content.


I’m always happy to correct a few facts, especially my own.

But as I mentioned in the E-mail, the layout of Slate’s site gives one the impression that MSN at the very least underwrites the efforts of its staff. While it is now obvious to me that this is not the case, there is still what I would characterize as a conflict of interest. Normally, we don’t think twice about an editorial piece that just happens to dovetail nicely with the desires of a major advertiser of a news website. That’s just business as usual and not really new. But in this instance, the criticism of Wikipedia’s editorial system was unfounded. Also, Mr. Boutin had several of his facts wrong, facts that were easily verified simply be checking Wikipedia’s own stats. Such mischaracterization, if unchecked, can go a long way towards damaging the reputation of a very useful resource, be it Wikipedia or the Encyclopedia Britannica. I don’t think Mr. Boutin did so maliciously. I may be cynical, but I’m not that cynical. When someone in the media wishes to trash something of unverified merit, they don’t go about it half assed. If Slate or WaPo wanted to rip Wikipedia a new one, they would have done so in purple prose and at length, using the methods perfected by such great newsmen like William Randolph Hurst.

Now, I’m not saying Slate is by any means, the tool of a nefarious billionaire with shady business practices. Nor am I suggesting that they bite the hand that feeds them. All I ask, is that their writers check their facts and their editors double check them.

And while I’m at it, I’d also like a pony.

* Which it isn’t. Wikipedia is far more useful than Encarta and other web-based encyclopedias, for reasons I mentioned previously, and in a case study I recently completed for my master’s work. If anyone would like to read this case study, which is riveting stuff, send me an e-mail. I’ll gladly attach a PDF copy.