02 July 2007

Wikipedia, RIP?

I've written in measured praise of Wikipedia before.
Wikipedia does not deliver the last word on controversial subjects, but it provides a very useful first word for getting yourself oriented.
Now it's not even reliably that.

When UK education secretary Alan Johnson praised Wikipedia as an educational tool, disillusioned Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger responded:

I’m afraid that Mr Johnson does not realise the many problems afflicting Wikipedia, from serious management problems, to an often dysfunctional community, to frequently unreliable content, and to a whole series of scandals. While Wikipedia is still quite useful and an amazing phenomenon, I have come to the view that it is also broken beyond repair.
Jaron Lanier, in his essay Digitial Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism provides a simple example of the problem.
My Wikipedia entry identifies me (at least this week) as a film director. It is true I made one experimental short film about a decade and a half ago. The concept was awful: I tried to imagine what Maya Deren would have done with morphing. It was shown once at a film festival and was never distributed and I would be most comfortable if no one ever sees it again.

In the real world it is easy to not direct films. I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again. I can think of no more suitable punishment than making these determined Wikipedia goblins actually watch my one small old movie.

Twice in the past several weeks, reporters have asked me about my filmmaking career. The fantasies of the goblins have entered that portion of the world that is attempting to remain real. I know I've gotten off easy. The errors in my Wikipedia bio have been (at least prior to the publication of this article) charming and even flattering.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has a more in a post and discussion about how the Wikipedia experiment may be turning out to just be a complete failure. There's lots of good stuff there, my favourite being a link to Kyle Gann's thoughtful words about how Wikipedia's editing rules tend to drive out genuine expertise.
The articles that a lot of people think they know something about, it turns out, are a nightmare. I take back everything: Wikipedia is a playground for belligerent adolescents.
The problem is that Wikipedia forces its contributors to come to a consensus, and building consensus with a crank is a fool's errand. Many of the departing scholars note the incident that finally brought them to leave; mine was a truculent teenager who refused to acknowledge that minimalist music was considered classical, because, as he put it, “it sounds more like Britney Spears than like Merzbow.” Let that sink in a minute. A person who insists that Einstein on the Beach, or Phill Niblock's Four Full Flutes, or Tom Johnson's Chord Catalogue cannot be considered classical because it sounds like Britney Spears is not a person one can seek consensus with.
Sanger is trying again with Citizendium.org, which has a credentialing process. He observes that the power of online publishing confronts us with fundamental questions with high stakes.
I think the fights we’ve seen about the reliability of Wikipedia or Digg.com are ultimately about politics in a deep but robust sense: we are really fighting about who should be in charge, epistemologically speaking.
I think it also reflects questions about community that online tools bring into sharp relief. Small communities built with trustworthy members can be successfully anarchic—indeed, benefit from being weakly structured. But this just doesn't scale. Eventually you have to find ways to handle untrustworthy members who are incompetent, irresponsible, or even malicious—and choosing how you do that is always a question with deep political implications.

No comments: