Wikipedia: magic, monkeys and typewriters

We just 'Don't Get It'

Letters Special Smart mobs? Wise crowds? An open access internet encyclopedia that heals itself? File it all under 'flying saucers', say Register readers.

But something is changing since we last wrote about Wikipedia a year ago. Even project founder Jimmy Wales has been obliged to admit its entries are "a horrific embarrassment". Readability, which wasn't great to begin with, has plummeted. Formerly coherent and reasonably accurate articles in the technical section have gotten worse as they've gotten longer. And most interesting of all, the public is beginning to notice.

While a year ago, misgivings in our postbag were swamped by 'pediaphiles rushing to defend the project, the ratio has flipped. While Wikipedia still has its defenders, there's a palpable relief that its shortcomings are finally being given the criticial eye. Mainstream media coverage of Wikipedia until now has rarely portrayed it as anything other than a miracle, and either ignores or rapidly glosses over quality issues.

Nicholas Carr, who drew attention to the deep problems with and religious enthusiasm for Wikipedia with his essay The Amorality of Web 2.0, has noticed the same thing in his mailbag. It's been unexpectedly positive, he says.

"Most of my correspondents have that sense of relief that it's being criticized," he told us last week. "People are naturally skeptical, but have come to fear their skepticism. Now people are being emboldened to be skeptical. It's a nagging voice they've been trying to ignore."

Britannica spokesman Tom Panelas also finds that the "taboo of criticizing" Wikipedia in the press - by "reporters who have suspended disbelief and become embedded", isn't widely shared by the public. More from the Britannica shortly, but first, your letters.

One reason for the change over twelve months soon becomes apparent from your missives. While we focused on the bad writing last week, the reliability of the entries is more serious. We increasingly hear of experts who attempt to contribute to the project being repelled. If you're an expert, and you want to help Wikipedia, be prepared for months of fighting - usually with people who don't know what they're talking about.

As Jason Scott put it -

"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 triddlers 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."

"And while that's all great in a happy-go-lucky flower shower sort of way, it's when you realize that the people who are going to change it could have absolutely no experience with the subject whatsoever, then you see where we are." [see 'The Great Failure of Wikipedia' Pt.1 and Pt.2.

Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff has watched one entry deteriorate over time, and it's a perfect example. As he writes here, the entry for Data General's AViiON servers was rife with howling errors, and the Data General article still is. Although he pitched in to help - he was a product manager on the AViiON - it was hard work.

"It's also interesting to observe in the main Data General article how many "futzing around" edits there are. A link polished here, a comma there, etc. Yet this article as a whole is incredibly poorly organized with no real narrative flow. And what storyline exists is wrong in significant ways; it's not even internally consistent," he writes.

"The whole lock-in or no lock-in paragraph is 75% nonsense (it seems to imply that DG went to Unix because it couldn't afford to develop a SQL database? Yet, further down the article correctly notes that DG HAD a SQL database already.) The AViiON section mixes timeframes and contains multiple out-and-out errors, etc. (I suspect that the first couple of sections source their information largely from Soul of A New Machine and seem fairly accurate and cogent, but then it falls apart.) But that would all take work and expertise to fix."

"Easier to twiddle than create," he concludes.

"There's a special skepticism and habits of mind that good editors have, and it takes a long time to learn, and you can sense it when it's absent," suggests Britannica's Tom Panelas. "A hundred amateurs will miss important errors that one trained professional will find."

This doesn't come as a surprise to anyone except the project's fans, for whom it is a religious endeavor. But the ex-Pedians proliferate.

I am glad you are writing about this subject. At first I thought Wikipedia was a great idea and started writing about the subjects I know with an academic take on them. As I have been close to some political movements and am pursuing an academic career in political history, I figured I would have something to contribute.

In the end I couldn't recognise my articles after about a week, and a few months later there was nothing left of them, having sufferd zillions of re-edits, irrelevant sentence adding and re-writes due to NPOV actually meaning MPOVNSE -my point of view, not someone elses.

So as you can imagine, as I didn't really feel like wasting my time, I just gave up and let the idiots who THOUGHT they knew something about the subject or those with a vested interest in making things look good take the helm.

Misha Dellinger

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