Wikipedia’s Grudging Recognition of its Self-imposed Limitations. An Internet Case Study
(This is a long blog, offering a digest of the important opinions of sincere and reputable commentators. Your patience and indulgence will be rewarded.)
Recent and foreseeable changes in the Wikipedia modus operandi are, in fact, a belated acknowledgement of the validity of the unrelenting pressure from its many articulate and brave critics. The changes and the reasons for them are also a further encouraging proof of the existence of what one Wikipedia critic, Andrew Orlowski, has dubbed “collective intelligence”, which must surely be seen as a complete antonym for the much-touted ‘Wisdom of Crowds’ (which leads, inevitably, to the creation and popular success of projects like Wikipedia in its present flawed form).
Sources of instant enlightenment on this ongoing Internet controversy:
Wikipedia itself dutifully chronicles 25 pages of criticisms:
Major sites and individuals critical of Wikipedia:
www.wikitruth.info (A Wiki-based site)
http://www.wikipedia-watch.org (Daniel Brandt)
www.theregister.co.uk (Andrew Orlowski)
www.wikipediareview.com (forums especially for disaffected Wikipedians)
http://uncyclopedia.org (Daniel Brandt – a brilliantly satirical Wiki-based site)
http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives (Jason Scott)
Also: ‘Criticisms of Wikipedia – A Compendium’, 4 January 2008, by The Review:
“(This post was submitted to the forum by The Review’s resident Troubleshooter, Gomi, on January 1, 2008)”
“Gomi: For the New Year, I decided to attempt to compile a list of Wikipedia Review’s criticisms of Wikipedia. I have tried to approach this broadly — I don’t agree with all of these myself, but this is my view of the complaints that come up over and over again. One thing that is clear, after looking at Wikipedia for several years, is that these problems are not getting better, they are getting worse.”
An ex-contributor to Wikipedia, information specialist Scott boldly and perceptively articulated many serious claims in his lecture, ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ on 19 November 2004 (three years after the launch of Wikipedia). In response to an avalanche of Internet correspondence, including the sort of abuse often directed at “apostates” and whistle-blowers, Scott followed this lecture with two other important contributions in 2005, and a further one in 2007 (on the extraordinary and revealing Essjay scandal).
Here is Scott’s spectacularly vernacular verdict on Wikipedia’s performance:
“This is what the inherent failure of wikipedia is. It’s that there’s a small set of content generators, a massive amount of wonks and twiddlers, and then a heaping amount of procedural whackjobs. And the mass of twiddlers and procedural whackjobs means that the content generators stop being so and have to become content defenders. Woe be that your take on things is off from the majority. Even if you can prove something, you’re now in the situation that anybody can change it.”
(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html)
On Wikipedia as a concept and on the Wikipedia NPOV doctrine:
“Neutral Point of View is a doctrine about how Wikipedia articles should be written. Like wikipedia itself, it is a great idea in theory. In application, of course, it turns into yet another hammer for wonks and whackjobs to beat each other and innocent bystanders.”
Jason Scott (Sadovsky), ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html
On the Open system model:
“I should mention that I’ve actually spent several years doing work for an organization, using software that is, basically, a Wiki. However, there’s only about 12 of us with access, and of the 12 maybe 6 are frequent contributors… And I thought this is how they all were. We just didn’t get in each others’ way. It was quite a shock to be on Wikipedia.”
(Jason Scott (Sadovsky) ‘The Great Failure of Wikipedia’ (19 November 2004) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000060.html)
This is also a fundamental point by critic Nicholas G. Carr:
“ … the open source model — when it works effectively — is not as egalitarian or democratic as it is often made out to be. Linux has been successful not just because so many people have been involved, but because the crowd’s work has been filtered through a central authority who holds supreme power as a synthesizer and decision maker.”
(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007
Scott reiterated and clarified his position after intense Internet debate on his writings:
“ My primary disagreement with Wikipedia’s approach is not about expertise, accuracy or quality; it is about procedure energy dispersal […]. [… ] my issues as stated in my previous essay were not about whether Wikipedia was in competition with other reference sources, but how minor procedural decisions have essentially doomed it on its own.”
“ As an off-the-cuff example, Wikipedia has a login system, wherein for free and with no effort, you become a “Person”, an entity with a name and a history and even your nice little page that you can use to build a fun little world of pictures and information about your work on Wikipedia. It is essentially effortless, and it is pretty easy to create a mass of user accounts and foment your opinions in votes and other situations. […]”
“… they allow totally anonymous full-content editing by random users. In other words, no accounting at all. People don’t even have to submit to a rubber-stamp login process to begin screwing with entries that someone may have just spent hours getting just right. […]”
“ Wikipedia has a large contingency of users who play the Wikipedia Rules of Etiquette and Procedure like they were Role Playing Games and function within them causing havok and personal gratification at the expense of moving the project forward.”
“Academic review, experts vs. non-experts, use of Wikipedia as a replacement encyclopedia, and other such high-level concerns are way down the road and not my concern; my concern, and ultimately the reason why I have stopped contributing to the project (and why many others have, too) rests in aspects much closer to Wikipedia’s core.”
On Wikipedians’ reactions to criticism (of particular interest to ‘whistleblowers’ and those involved with illuminating the murky world of cults and fundamentalist organisations):
“Some days, I feel like I should have never written anything about Wikipedia, positive or negative. Like many cults, it has extreme members or well-meaning folks who do not understand what they are part of, and who take me on personally and then fall back into the ranks should I respond poorly. Some of them, should I respond within the confines of Wikipedia, point to the rules of discourse on Wikipedia and how I am breaking them.”
(Jason Scott 3 Jan 2005 http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000067.html)
A few months later:
“… I will rest my case on a single entry: That of the Swastika.
Here, contained in one entry, is everything that I have issues with regarding the implementation of Wikipedia as it currently stands with its rules. […]”
“With over 1,500 edits done to this entry over its 3 year lifespan, the process of becoming even slightly familiar with the editing pattern could be a full day’s work. […]”
“The story of the swastika’s entry continues after this, for over 1,200 edits. Dozens of people are involved, lots of facts are lost, many are gained… and you would be hard, hard-pressed to show why many of these folks should be editing the Swastika entry in the first place. Calling this “open source” and comparing it to programming projects is borderline insane: open-source programming projects have a core team with goals in mind that they state clearly, who then decide what gets in and what does not get in. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it does not, but people with anonymous IPs can’t just come in and fundamentally redo the graphics code on the program and then disappear, never to be seen again.”
(Jason Scott, 3 May 2005, ‘Swastipedia’, http:// ascii.textfiles.com/archives/000100.html)
In October 2005, Andrew Orlowski contributed the following opinions:
“Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.
Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they’re talking about.)”
“ Traditionally, Wikipedia supporters have responded to criticism in one of several ways. The commonest is: If you don’t like an entry, you can fix it yourself. Which is rather like going to a restaurant for a date, being served terrible food, and then being told by the waiter where to find the kitchen.”
“ Thirdly, and here you can see that the defense is beginning to run out of steam, one’s attention is drawn to process issues: such as the speed with which errors are fixed, or the fact that looking up a Wikipedia is faster than using an alternative. This line of argument is even weaker than the first: it’s like going to a restaurant for a date – and being pelted with rotten food, thrown at you at high velocity by the waiters.”
“Re-working Wikipedia so it presents the user with something minimally readable will be a mammoth task. Although the project has no shortage of volunteers, most add nothing: busying themselves with edits that simply add or takeaway a comma. These are housekeeping tasks that build up credits for the participants, so they can rise higher in the organization.”
“And Wikipedia’s “cabal” has become notorious for deterring knowledgable and literate contributors. One who became weary of the in-fighting, Orthogonal, calls it Wikipedia’s HUAC – the House of Unamerican Activities prominent in the McCarthy era for hunting down and imprisoning the ideologically-incorrect.”
“One day Wikipedia may well be the most amazing reference work the world has ever seen, lauded for its quality. But to get from here to there it will need real experts and top quality writing – it won’t get there by hoping that its whizzy technical processes remedy such deficiencies. In other words, it will resemble today’s traditional encyclopedias far more than it does today.”
(Andrew Orlowski, ‘Wikipedia founder admits to serious quality problems. Yes, it’s garbage, bit it’s delivered so much faster!’ http://www.theregister.co. uk/2005/10/18/wikipedia_quality_problem/page2.html)
On the members of the Wikipedia community:
A satirical definition from http://www.wikitruth.info:
“What is a [serious] Wikipedian?
“You can set up a user account, start editing everything you can find, enmesh yourself into the politics, the lameness, the backstabbing and moronity, and fight an ever-present desperate whirlpooling battle of contract law, miserable personalities and microscopic anal details. You can run out of additional information to add to subjects you know, and instead tunnel deep into shit you don’t have the slightest notion about, using your intense knowledge of Wiki-jargon and gaming the system to fight every bastard who tries to change an article in a way you don’t agree with, or which might have any information you’re unable to garner in the first 5 matches of a Google search.” (www.wikitruth.info)
In its wiki article on Wikipedia, http://www.sourcewatch.org makes this critical point:
“Although experts on a subject may edit a page, they ultimately have no more control over the content of that page than anyone else. Contributors with unique knowledge of unusual subjects may be mistrusted by editors with general knowledge, or to put it less diplomatically, little or no knowledge, who rely on searches of other Internet sites to review new information. Administrators or editors might analyze writing skills or rely on opinions about a contributor to inform decisions when they have no knowledge of the subject of an article, or on a poll of individuals as ill-informed about the subject at hand as they are, themselves.”
Sam Vaknin adds:
“Lacking quality control by design, the Wikipedia rewards quantity. The more one posts and interacts with others, the higher one’s status, both informal and official. In the Wikipedia planet, authority is a function of the number of edits, no matter how frivolous. The more aggressive (even violent) a member is; the more prone to flame, bully, and harass; the more inclined to form coalitions with like-minded trolls; the less of a life he or she has outside the Wikipedia, the more they are likely to end up being administrators.”
(Sam Vaknin, ‘The Six Sins of the Wikipedia’, 2 July, 2006,
A striking example of the many Wikipedia scandals of recent years, unearthed because of the persistence of a critic and the over-confidence of a prominent Wikipedian administrator with brazenly false credentials:
In July 2006, following a fascinating feature article on Wikipedia in The New Yorker by Stacy Schiff, Daniel Brandt posted this letter to the critical forum wikipediareview.com:
“Who is Essjay? I would love to ID this guy. I think he’s notable enough for his own biography.
He says that his username derives from his initials, S.J. That would suggest that his first and middle name, or first and surname, start with S and J. But it hasn’t helped my search.
He’s between 30 and 45, and teaches theology to undergrads and grads. He’s a tenured professor. He says that he teaches at a private university in the northeastern U.S., but I have my doubts about this also.
He says he has these degrees: Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (B.A.), Master of Arts in Religion (M.A.R.), Doctorate of Philosophy in Theology (Ph.D.), Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)
I’ve searched on his degrees, and I’ve looked at religion-department faculty lists in the northeast by using this resource. No clues.” […]
Six months later, Brandt’s suspicions were confirmed. In February 2007, Wikipedia’s credibility suffered a further bodyblow when his evidence and an announcement in The New Yorker revealed that one of Wikipedia’s prominent administrators (recently promoted to be a salaried Wikia employee) did not possess the tenured professorship and four academic degrees that he had claimed on his User page and to the journalist Stacy Schiff. After further internal investigation and discussions revealed that 24 year old “Essjay” (with a tally of 16,000 edits) had used the prestige of his false credentials in edit disputes, he was eventually asked to resign by Jimmy Wales.
On Signs of Change in the System, Nicholas G. Carr:
“Aware of Wikipedia’s flaws, Wales and other contributors have been trying hard to improve the quality of the site’s content. A management team has slowly been taking shape, and it is establishing editorial policies and policing contributions. But even though this nascent hierarchy has already become much more bureaucratic than Linux’s lean managerial structure, it hasn’t yet been able to substantially improve Wikipedia. The failure appears to stem from the makeup of the supervisory group. Whereas the Linux team is a strict meritocracy, Wikipedia’s administrators represent a broader mix of contributors. They’re often chosen on the basis of how much they’ve contributed or how long they’ve contributed rather than on the quality of their contributions or their editorial skill. It seems fair to say that although the bazaar should be defined by diversity, the cathedral should be defined by talent.”
(‘The Ignorance of Crowds’, May 2007 by Nicholas G. Carr
Nicholas G. Carr’s much earlier brief analysis of Wikipedia is also highly instructive and much wider-ranging.
“In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing – it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness. In reality, though, Wikipedia isn’t very good at all. Certainly, it’s useful – I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it’s unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper.”
(Here Carr gives a critique of two flawed Wikipedia articles (on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda). His analysis was so accurate that Jimmy Wales later admitted the need for improvements.)
“The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional. We see it in their unalloyed praise of Wikipedia, and we see it in their worship of open-source software and myriad other examples of democratic creativity. Perhaps nowhere, though, is their love of amateurism so apparent as in their promotion of blogging as an alternative to what they call ‘the mainstream media’.”
(Nicholas G. Carr, ‘The amorality of Web 2.0’, www.roughtype.com/archives/2005/10/the_amorality_o.php) LINK
Transcending the lessons offered by the case of Wikipedia, Carr’s magisterial conclusion to this important essay deserves the widest attention and diffusion in this increasingly ‘amoral’ cyberworld:
“Like it or not, Web 2.0, like Web 1.0, is amoral. It’s a set of technologies – a machine, not a Machine – that alters the forms and economics of production and consumption. It doesn’t care whether its consequences are good or bad. It doesn’t care whether it brings us to a higher consciousness or a lower one. It doesn’t care whether it burnishes our culture or dulls it. It doesn’t care whether it leads us into a golden age or a dark one. So let’s can the millennialist rhetoric and see the thing for what it is, not what we wish it would be.”