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Wikipedia's Emergent People fail to impress readers

No sympathy for the fiddlers

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Letters If you could cram your favorite hobby horses into the Encyclopedia of the Future, wouldn't you be tempted? Well, refreshingly, many readers wouldn't - so let's commend their integrity. Wikipedia's reputation gets another mauling in response to this story, so if you're a member of what one reader calls the Emergent People - perhaps like Tomorrow's People, but without the transporter belts - don't read on.

"Good article. Please do not let up on these people for a second," writes Kevin Browne.

"If the Emergent People wish to present themselves as authorities without the credentials to back up the claim, they already begin at a disadvantage. If they then lack the discipline and knowledge to write and present themselves correctly, should one have confidence in the knowledge they claim, or that they have the discipline to research it properly?"

Citing the excitable young wiki-fiddler who claimed, 'It should come as no suprise a journalist and teacher ganged up on Wikipedia. Both have much to loose. Their claim? Authority.' Kevin replies -

"Indeed. Authority. And training. And experience. And having received guidance from a predecessor who had those same advantages. And the ability to fucking spell!"

"Let's assume the wiki-fiddlers are right and education is obsolete, which is what their argument amounts to. They should demonstrate the courage of their convictions, quit their day jobs and impart their knowledge and wisdom to us, full-time, for nothing. I might support them in such a course of action - not monetarily, of course, as I would hate to corrupt them - and I may even read what they have to say if they learn what a bloody apostrophe is for.

Some Bazaar

Reader Hari Balaramaran adds:

"I found the article very amusing and close to my experience. Although originally interested in the idea of a 'bazaar' of ideas, I found that there is a lot of submission by young, energetic, interested but unfortunately misinformed people (their excess free time results in distortions in the 'bazaar' equilibrium.) The fact that they don't know very much about their articles of interest seems to add to their energy and self-righteousness. The idea is very democratic and egalitarian but if you want to spread egalitarianism, start a political party. Don't subvert an encyclopaedia. Democracy may support egalitarianism but that has nothing to "truth" or "knowledge" (yes, I know you'll want to connect it all up for me but give it a rest)

It brings to mind a different project, Linux, which is "successful" rather than "emergent" on account of linus, who in addition to his kernel coding, probably doesn't want to dealt with Emergent facts from uninformed heads."

"Personally I'm happy to accept their information on Klingons as being authoritative," writes Andy Toone. "However, the people who get overexcited about the social effects of Wiki/ Blogs/ Open Source seem to be far less reliable when it comes to the economics and practicalities of providing time, effort and information to such projects."

Ouch.

Many readers pointed to this Slashdot discussion, where mistakes inserted into the online encyclopedia weren't picked up. The project's supporters said that this is because the entries were under obscure topics. Er, just the sort of things that you might need an encyclopedia to answer. Oh, dear.

But there's more. Reader Pascal Monnett gets close to the truth behind the evangelism.

"Wikipedia is a dreamer's idea of knowledge," he writes. "The fact that everyone can input whatever they want may a great thing for equality, but any librarian will tell you its a lousy thing for classification and evaluation."

"Wikipedia has nothing over a 'traditional' library, especially when the 'Old World' institution puts its catalog on line. In the end, Wikipedia will not allow to search faster or find more, unless you're looking for Star Trek trivia of course. Having surfed on the ocean of ignorance that is the Web for the past ten years, I will prefer a library (on-line or off) whenever I want to find Knowledge (the stuff written by scientists and men in possession of that Old World thing known as Wisdom)."

What's 'meme' in Klingon?

"What did Wikipedia ever do to you to deserve this?" asks Ikijtsch van Beijnum. "I have found plenty of interesting stuff in there, and some of it even unrelated to Star Trek or computers."

Well, so have we all, but it's when the fiddlers get to obscure or contentious subjects, that the trouble really starts. Trust is built on how hugely contentious subjects are presented, and Wikipedia with its Klingon belief in "neutral point of view" - rather than context - is where it starts to fall down. Other philosophical issues, like the idea that you can vote on the truth, might be more problematic.

A most bizarre claim comes from Aakash Mehendale, who at least admits that as a first port of call and as a free resource it isn't too bad. He didn't accept our library comparison, because, he argues:

"You *pay* for access to those, making a comparison to Wikipedia, free to anyone with web access, not really valid (online access to databases at sfpl.org is only available with a library card; these are free to California residents [who pay state taxes, I am assuming], but visitors require a $10 'non-refundable deposit' and a temporary San Francisco address)"

But you can also look at it from another direction. Libraries are an incredibly effective way of amortizing the cost of getting expensive, good-quality information out to people. And almost everyone in the developed world already pays for some kind of library. Now remember that the database owners don't hoard this information because they're evil or mean, but because it's how they make money, and they have to eat. They don't care how they get it, and they'd be happy to receive more from the libraries, so long as Wikipedians weren't copying it out. So this could be a worthwhile project: only it's a social, rather than technical challange.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than a Wikipedian arguing the wider availability of high quality information collections - at which point, you begin to realize it's a religious issue. Which brings us full circle, back to those hobby horses.

Rather bizarrely, Aakash defends the odd weighting given to many entries by arguing,

"Maybe 'the entry on "memes" is almost as long as the entry for Immanuel Kant' [or the KLF - ed]because there already exists a wealth of resources on Kant," he says, "so the appropriate entry is a guide to and links to those; whereas you can cover memes pretty much completely in a single article. Of approximately the same length as the hyperlink-packed entry on Kant."

He adds, "In the extreme case where there already exists an online resource that says everything about topic T, why do any more than link to that resource? This is hypertext, not a paper encyclopaedia: we don't have to copy out all the work that's already been done."

So there you go.

Your reporter is tempted to start a supermarket where if something isn't available, the punters are simply redirected to another store where it is. We'll call this Emergent-Mart. How well do you suppose it will do, dear readers?

Wikipedia has a dilemma here. I'm sure many readers have been approached by people in the street claiming to have a big book that tells all the answers - people in various states of hygiene, insisting that their book is more trusted than others. But historically, the ones we end up trusting more than others usually don't make psychobabble their main selling point. Other factors are usually decisive - like whether it's authoritative, or just plain right or wrong. So Wikipedia can go two ways: it can grown into becoming a reasonable encyclopedia, or it can hide behind the psychobabble, and claim special pleading - like religious projects do. Expect a change in how the project is marketed fairly shortly. ®


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