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Farewell, Wikipedia?

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The episode has been quite a calamity for the project: Wikipedia funders now regret their contributions, and senior Wikipedia editors regret their personal investment in the project. May we add three points that are in danger of being overlooked-

Firstly, there's the issue of "deception" and the New Yorker. Pranking the media should not be considered a crime; it's an honorable activity. Journalists are deceived on a daily basis — and should be more often, as it keeps us on our toes. When you hear journalists complaining about this onerous obligation — of sifting their sources, you know that privilege has won out over duty. Yet this is something the Pulitzer Prize winner commissioned to write the now notorious feature failed to do.

Make no mistake, Jordan's appearance in the hallowed pages of the New Yorker was not due to his 16,000 edits on Wikipedia, or his natural charisma, or photogenic charms — it was because his sales blurb claimed that he was a Professor of Theology with four degrees. Who better to fulfill Stacy Schiff’s brief, to marvel at one of the Wonders of the Modern World? Schiff duly delivered what her editors required: a piece of advertising copy.

It stands as a a warning that evangelism and reporting don’t really mix.

Secondly, there's the very elephant in the room that Schiff failed to mention: the cult-like aspect of Web 2.0-flavoured technology-evangelism that we see in projects like Wikipedia. What did the New Yorker miss? Only the obvious, as reader Michael Paxton pointed out via email:

"I know this will sound ridiculous," he writes, "but it is beginning to seem that Wikiology is, more and more, taking on the form of the much maligned (pseudo)religion, Scientology."

"The personality cult, the rejection of conventional truths and realities that challenge the core objectives, the once informal steering groups hardening into a shell of dogma that realises that rejection."

"Hell, the moment I read ArbComm I immediately thought of the Scientology's 'Sea Org'. Both the role as upholders of the core objectives (on behalf of the leader) and the affected air of hand chosen adjudicators of martial law seem to simply add to the rather scarey similarity."

"Please, oh please, warn us if Jimmy Wales ever starts building a navy!"

Not all idealists on the Wikipedia cause are prepared to let this go. Here’s a crie de coeur from an editor in despair, spotted last week:

We've stopped being an encyclopedia. We've stopped using common sense. We've taken our eye of the big picture and focused on ourselves, our myopic power games, our petty process, and our internal need to keep every one in line. We count sources to determine notability — because we need objective rules. Never mind the fact it is absurd. We fight little wars with [[Daniel Brandt|monsters of out own imagination]]. Never mind the fact they cheapen us. We care not for the damage we do to the real world and its real people, or potential we miss, as long as we can make little rules and have little people follow them.

I'm sick of the little people and their little rules. For now, I want no part of them. I thought there were signs of hope. And I was wrong. + :If this is a direct or indirect result of [[List of Internet phenomena]], I feel some responsibility for the situation. Please e-mail me. [[User:Newyorkbrad|Newyorkbrad]] 18:00, 28 February 2007 (UTC)

Which may be the last sound of any conscience the project had ebbing away.

Thirdly, and (almost) finally — there's the question of what Wikipedia's place in the world really is.

A few months ago at a social event, your reporter had an epiphany - but then we all need to get out more. A random stranger was expressing delight at finding “stuff” — information, factoids — on the internet, but couldn't grasp that Wikipedia wasn’t owned by Google. When you type in a word, or question, doesn’t “stuff” just come out of the computer?

It was hard to explain that Wikipedia was a separate entity that wasn't owned by Google, and even harder to explain — forgive me, dear readers, for I didn't have the courage to explain this — that it was actually Wikipedia that now “owned” Google.

Here we must salute Shelley Powers, for adding a broader perspective:

I've recently stopped using Wikipedia, or stopped using it as an original source. I've found two things:

First, Google's results have degraded in the last year or so. When one ignores Wikipedia in the results, on many subjects most of the results are placement by search engine optimization–typically garbage–or some form of comment or usenet group or some such that's not especially helpful. Good results are now more likely found in the second or third pages.

Second, I find that I'm having to go to more than one page to find information, but when I do, I uncover all sorts of new and interesting goodies. That's one of the most dangerous aspects of Wikipedia (aside from the whole 'truth' thing), or any single-source of information: we lose the ability to discover things on the net through sheer serendipity.

So the task of "organizing all the world's information and making it useful" - Google's mission statement, and the rod which broke its own back — is beyond the capability of the cleverest algorithms humans can devise.

In other words, the popular media conditions us to expect such wonders from technology, that when we type in a word or phrase, good honest wisdom pours out. But Google, with its insane mission to record everything that ever happened ever, can't cope with this super-abundance of recorded material. So it falls back on the unpaid volunteers of Wikipedia to do its job for it.

But wait, it gets worse!

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