Wikipedia and Authority


I initially posted this as a comment, following up to a comment by "Y456two" on Wikipedia Woes, but here it is as its own entry, because, well, it is rather long.

This portrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what Wikipedia is. Adding editors amounts to turning Wikipedia into the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Why would you want to do that? Don't we already have an Encyclopedia Brittanica?

No-- it represents the fundamental gap that separates what Wikipedia is from what it seeks to become. A user driven Wikipedia edited by panels of subject experts in various fields will be both more comprehensive AND more authoritative than a traditional encyclopedia.

If you believe that the masses are not smart enough to make their own judgements about the veracity of what they read, then, yes, absolutely, we should have a heavily regulated Internet, publishing industry, and media (sounds like China, don't it?)

I do think that heavy internet users and information professionals over-estimate the information literacy of the average internet user, but private editorial control on a private web site is a long way from state regulation. Why do we trust articles in the NY Times more than the Washington Times or the West Podunk Pioneer Press? A reputation for accuracy and veracity. Why would one prefer to buy from a seller on eBay with a +300 feedback rating than one with no feedback rating? A reputation for being an honest dealer.

What do we know about the authors of a wikipedia entry? Why is it authoritative? We only know that wikipedia as a whole is generally accurate. But because each article is written by a different group of authors, researchers do not have an easy way of figuring out which articles are accurate and which contain blatant falsehoods or smaller inaccuracies.

Adding a series of editorial boards comprised of acknowledged experts in various fields to monitor wikipedia entries will go a long way towards increasing the accuracy and trustworthiness of wikipedia as a whole. And it is possible to do this without becoming a Britannica clone-- in fact, doing so would take advantage of the same internet and collaborative technologies and processes that make wikipedia possible. It just happens to also acknowledge the fact (and, yes, it is a fact) that some people simply have more knowledge and experience in various subject matters than others. In the wikipedia model, these boards would not be simply appointed from the get-go, but could be composed of flexible memberships, with new members joining either by distinguished work in academia or business as well as by distinguished contributions to wikipedia itself.

At the very least, Wikipedia could post a list of the contributors who wrote or edited each article. This would make it possible for researchers to find out more about the authors of each individual article and make an educated decision whether to trust the accuracy of the wikipedia article.

I could say that the 'blogosphere' needs editors. I could claim that the problem with blogs is that there isn't some credentialed editor who controls what is posted.

Unlike Wikipedia, the "blogosphere" is not a single entity. Individual blogs have attributes that establish their reputation for accuracy and veracity. For example, you can read my biographical information and see that my posts carry less intellectual heft than those of Prof. Goldman, for example. Unlike the millions of individual blogs posted by named or pseudonymous authors, Wikipedia presents itself as a centralized authority and strips away many of the signs that make it possible for an individual researcher to decide whether a single article is reliable. We can't look to the author's biography. We can't judge the publisher's credibility, because this publisher will post anything. We can't look at the professionalism of the page design. The Wikipedia brand takes credibility from articles that justifiably grant credibility and it also lends credibility to articles that are not worthy of it.

The problem with Wikipedia is that it lends its brand to anyone. In the trademark context, a trademark owner who nakedly licenses a mark to anyone without keeping track of the quality of goods sold under that mark may lose the right to defend the mark. Since a trademark is meant to protect consumers and indicate the source of a good or service, nakedly licensing the mark strips away value from the mark. By allowing anyone and everybody to edit entries on wikipedia, wikipedia may squander any credibility it has attained.

As for Eric Goldman, I suppose he would be surprised to know that Usenet continues to thrive and be useful to millions of users every day.

I would challenge the idea that Usenet continues to thrive. I have yet to even load a Usenet news reader on my Powerbook, which means that I haven't delved into that thriving medium in at least nine months and haven't missed it a bit. People may still use newsgroups, but they have long since ceased to be relevant. How many average internet users can recognize that "alt.nerd.obsessive" denotes a newsgroup?

Here is the heart of the issue: do we trust people?

We trust people to the extent that the people have as full information as possible to make decisions. As another analogy, this is the driving principle behind securities law-- we have a policy bias towards requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose information-- because this allows investors to make informed decisions. The more that identifying information is witheld, the less reason we have to trust


You said: "No-- it represents the fundamental gap that separates what Wikipedia is from what it seeks to become. A user driven Wikipedia edited by panels of subject experts in various fields will be both more comprehensive AND more authoritative than a traditional encyclopedia"

I don't think we agree on what Wikipedia seeks to become. I definitely don't agree that it will ever become authoritarian -- that's exactly what it is fighting against.

"Authority" as a source of knowledge is nice because it lets you stop thinking. As long as you trust the authority completely, you can trust everything that authority says and go about your merry little life without worry. If George W. Bush is your authority figure, you can certainly just accept everything he says as fact. If Encyclopedia Brittanica is your authority figure, you can certainly accept everything it says as indisputable fact.

But neither of us is naive enough to have such trust, even in these established authorities, are we? So isn't it better to practice skepticism, and trust each voice only so far as it speaks what we perceive as truth? Whether it comes from Dan Rather or my next-door neighbor, Newsweek or the Drudge Report, Wikipedia or Brittanica -- isn't blind faith in authority going to cause more error than healthy skepticism and yielding to reasoned argument and evidence?

You said: "What do we know about the authors of a wikipedia entry?"

Actually, we know quite a lot about the authors of wikipedia entries. Their complete edit history is available for all to see. The range of subjects in which they have participated is in plain view. Their arguments for and against each change are available in the comments of each entry.

With Brittanica, we get none of this. We know that editing took place, controversial subject matter was perhaps added/removed/etc., but the process is completely hidden from us. We don't know why an entry says what it says. We don't know what debates took place between the author and their editor.

When you participate in wikipedia authorship, you see that there is already a reputation system in place, and that it works quite well for the vast majority of cases. The fact that it doesn't work all the time, is in my opinion, a blessing -- it wakes us up to the fact that we shouldn't be blindly trusting authority, smooth-talking journalists, or voices that only are heard because they can claim to be 'professionals.'

You said: "I have yet to even load a Usenet news reader on my Powerbook"

I wouldn't take your own disinterest in Usenet as sufficient evidence to claim it isn't still widely used, useful, or relevant. The number of daily posts indicate otherwise. Sure, many web users don't know about it or care about it, but so? Many web users don't know or care about Wikipedia. Many web users don't know or care about MSN. Many web users don't know or care even about AOL. That doesn't mean these entities don't continue to thrive.

You said: "Adding a series of editorial boards comprised of acknowledged experts in various fields to monitor wikipedia entries will go a long way towards increasing the accuracy and trustworthiness of wikipedia as a whole."

It will never happen. But if you really believe in this vision, it is fairly easy for you to create it. In fact, it wouldn't take much technical effort at all, since both the wikimedia codebase and the wikimedia content is freely available for you to download. The only modification you'd have to make is to enforce and police account registrations and get your assembled panels of experts to have administrative control over their respective content. This is only about a month's worth of work for 1 skilled software engineer, tops.

But after you get it up, what then? Who would come to your AndrewPedia and help you out? If it truly were better than WikiPedia, you can guarantee that you'd get a following. My guess is that it just wouldn't be that interesting.

And if you are successful, what would you have accomplished? You would have added central-control social elements back into an invention whose key characteristic is that it was completely decentralized socially. Doesn't make much sense to me.

Shoot, someone beat you to it:

It is almost exactly what you propose.

Here's a little academic wager for you: Digital Universe will never rival Wikipedia. I'll give it 5 years before it disappears completely.

Of course, maybe I'm wrong. Folks like yourself certainly seem to want something like this. I just question whether you can get a significant user-base to rally around something that, ultimately, says to those users, "you guys are idiots and we don't trust you."

"Why are people so uncomfortable with Wikipedia? And Google? And, well, that whole blog thing?" asks (and then answers) this article at The Long Tail:

Anderson's post (and some of the comments) do address the issue that is the problem with wikipedia. While on a macro level, wikipedia is a great resource and generally reliable, on the micro level-- for each individual article-- the level of reliability varies greatly. Can an information professional recommend a wikipedia article as a source? Not without vetting and verifying the individual entry. Why isn't a list of all contributors to the article listed in the sidebar? Why shouldn't the authors gain the notoriety of authoring wikipedia entries? Why attempt to create an impersonal editorial voice instead of acknowledging that it is a collaborative work of a number of people?

Wikipedia does not provide ways of gauging the reputation of each article-- something like Slashdot moderation or eBay feedback ratings that demonstrates the wisdom of the crowd about each individual entry could work. A rating system that allows researchers to quickly and easily assess the credibility of each individual entry will begin to make it possible to gauge which articles are reliable, which are inaccurate and which are controversial. So could the Digital Universe model of appointing panels of experts to vet the information. Which model ends up being better is a function of how the sites are used. For many areas, I'd tend to trust the wisdom of the specialists in the field over the wisdom of the crowd. But in a large number of areas, the wisdom of the crowd is may be just as good.

The expert-vetted collaborative information source is much more difficult to build than simply duplicating wikipedia and adding moderation. The difficulty is not technical, but in recruiting-- in finding experts in hundreds of fields and convincing them to agree to contribute and monitor entries, which is why DU is launching only after significant (but not tremendous) funding.

While the list of contributors/notoriety information isn't as prominent as it perhaps should be, it is there. Just click on the revision history for any article. You'll see a long change of edits, revisions, and reversions, all tagged with the user who authored them. And you can find all the other pages that a user has contributed to. Judging from user homepages, many users are motivated largely by the prestige that they get in making useful contributions.

You said: "The difficulty is not technical, but in recruiting-- in finding experts in hundreds of fields and convincing them to agree to contribute and monitor entries"

Exactly. This observation, in fact, is part of the genius of wikipedia. How do you get an army of thousands of users to create *all* of your content for you, for free? Wikipedia's answer is simpler than "give them the tools to make contributing easy" -- it is give them the incentive to participate by granting them full, self-policing editorial control.

When I look at DU, I have to ask myself, where are their contributors going to come from? Is a wikipedia contributor likely to say, "hey, I could go work on DU instead, and give control over my contributions to a panel of paid experts. That's just what I wanted! I want to relinquish the empowerment I have at wikipedia! And I want to add some layers of beauracracy between me and my work! Sign me up!"

It seems fairly obvious to me that DU is destined to fail because it insults exactly those vital resources that it needs in order to succeed: its potential contributors.


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