Wikipedia: magic, monkeys and typewriters

We just 'Don't Get It'

Reader Kris agrees with many of the criticisms but longs for better tools.

"I've seen a person with a PhD (and decades worth of knowledge as a university lecturer and published academic) find editing a Wikipedia article difficult and unclear despite knowing exactly what they wanted to write in that article. If the editing process could be made easier (perhaps with some kind of editing wizard or a Java-based word processor app) they'd attract writers and editors from far more fields of experience."

Then he goes on to provide a better explanation of why they might stay away:

"Unfortunately many internet cliques hate outsiders and despise the idea of actively attracting newbies or making life easier for them."

But while for some contributors acknowledge the quality issue, for many more it hovers high overhead, unseen and unacknowledged.

"I mostly use Wikipedia to lookup technical entries (e.g. Python programming language) and have generally found those to be quite good. Judging an encyclopedia on the quality of its Jane Fonda entry strikes me as a dubious approach," writes Lloyd Kvam. He doesn't say why.

Translation: our encyclopedia is amazing - you must be stupid for using it. That's a great sales pitch!

Now let's return to our restaurant metaphor. It drove some people batty. The Hive Mind swarmed as one to take issue with us. For example,

You are completely full of shit.

When the last time you entered a restuarant and expected to eat for free?

You are a fucking dickhead.

"Tom Paine"

Or in a slightly more articulate fashion. It's not a restaurant, it's a potlatch where you bring your own food.

But the restaurant metaphor holds up for two reasons. Imagine a typical internet user - say, your Mother - for whom the computer is a box from which answers emerge. It's once choice amongst many. This isn't an unreasonable way to look at it, since this is how the internet has been sold to us for ten years, and how most people approach it.

If the information is bad, then it's exactly like being served bad food. And bad food causes indigestion. If people walk up to computers and get good answers, they're delighted and use them more.

Such an explanation boggles technology utopians, who seem to think they have a divine right to be heard. They rapidly turn the blame on the users themselves for being stupid. Possibly we "don't get it". Maybe nobody "gets it" apart from the Wikipedians themselves. But they're a useful tool and can be better, so when Wikipedia and its copies proliferate, clogging Google with badly written inaccurate information like a kind of pondweed, the public's faith in technology sinks a notch.

The other reason eating is an appropriate metaphor is that we can enjoy many high quality reference works for free at the point of delivery. Look at my choices - you could have them too.

It isn't literally free, but then neither is the internet. It's fractions of cents however. Both Nick Carr, who pointed to the transcendent claims made for Wikipedia, and Robert McHenry, who called it "a faith based encyclopedia", have both picked up on the irrational aspects of this. More than anything its supporters simply have to believe that it's magic, because giving the public a straight choice between rubbish and quality is one that Wikipedia will never be able to win. So it's best not to go there.

Tomorrow we'll look at "Project Galatea", an effort created in response to our article last week to try and improve the quality of entries, and hearing from the experts on whether they're worried by the project. ®

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