Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/24/wikipedia_letters/

Wikipedia: magic, monkeys and typewriters

We just 'Don't Get It'

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Letters, 24th October 2005 21:42 GMT

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

Excellent article! Well balanced and thoughtful! Ok, well, entertaining anyway.

Jimmy Wales

Collective intelligence? Er, Don't you mean collective stupidity?
None of us is as dumb as all of us or "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups" - Despair.com
Henry Schlarb

Your Baby Washington example highlights the problem I've always wondered about with the "you can fix it yourself" attitude - if you don't know about a subject then you won't know that it's incorrect. And if you already know enough about a subject to be able to recognise and correct an incorrect wiki entry, then you probably won't need to be looking it up in the first place.
Which means that since anyone needing accurate information cannot rely on it, the only real use for wiki as it is now is for "experts" to show off their knowledge and/or pour derision on others for their lack thereof. Although the people who are actually expert in anything useful will of course not be participating as they'll be too busy getting paid for their expertise to write entries for real encyclopedias - the success of wiki relies on people willingly putting themselves out of a job out of the kindness of their own hearts!
That said, if I ever need to know anything about Klingon, wiki will be the first place I look... right after I hurl myself in front of a moving train.

Matt Javes

The late Robert A Heinlein opined that the intelligence of a mob should be calculated by taking its average and then dividing by the number comprising it. As far as he was concerned, any sizable group had less intelligence than a flatworm....
JB Kelley

I once heard that the way to calculate the collective intelligence of a group was to take the intelligence of the least intelligent member of the group and divide by the number of members in the group... That could explain alot about the quality issues with wikipedia :-)
Stacey Millions

I tend to regard Wikipedia as the ultimate monkeys generating Shakespeare experiment, so I'm largely in agreement with you. As for Britannica, though, one thinks of Christopher Tietjens in Ford Maddox Ford's Some Do Not - with a hobby of logging all the errors in it.

George Jansen

Glad to see the rubbish that is Wikipedia is finally being highlighted. With an encyclopedia you are talking about *absolute* quality. If your encyclopedia is meant to be a serious reference work then nothing should come higher than quality and the accuracy of entries. Wikipedia is fatally flawed because of its "come hither" approach - there is no system of peer review, no system to rate and appraise the quality of entries and no system to determine the fitness someone has for editing or creating entries.

As Carr said "...an encyclopedia is best judged by its weakest entries rather than its best."

The fact that Wikipedia lets people write rubbish and then legitimises the propagation of said rubbish makes us all poorer. Wikipedia is letting itself stand for insularity, trivia and subjectivity. It seems pretty unlikely to me any serious an encyclopedia needs entries on something as pitiful as "Klingon" - another cultural cul-de-sac which also, quite frankly, demonstrates the hold suburban America has on these reference works.

Unfortunately by its nature, Wikipedia under-estimates the effort actually involved in creating an authoratative encyclopedia - a true encyclopedia is an enormous undertaking by any measurement. Single entries may take months to write before they are even sent for review by people with legitimate expertise, either through their experience or qualifications.

Just having a keyboard and Internet connection shouldn't grant that kind authority. Perhaps Wikipedia should look to the world of peer-reviewed journals to get an appreciation of how knowledge needs to be filtered and distilled and even argued over before what your writing is fit for consumption.

Kevin Hall

Peer review has its own problems with groupthink, and only works when the peers are experts. But Wikipedia fans love the fact that it's a great leveler an expert has the same authority as a spotty teenager on the other side of the world who doesn't know the subject matter in hand.

What they don't like to talk about is that on Wikipedia, the truth is determined in the end by a physical contest: whoever has the endurance to stay awake at a keyboard and maintain his version of the edits wins.

I believe that the tone of the article is quite demeaning and misses out on the one indisputable quality that Wikipedia has brought into being. Now, thanks to the convergence of a million monkeys typing on a million keyboards, and after more than two millennia of breathless waiting, we finally have a modern, technologically advanced and incredibly complex version of the stables of Augias.

One can only wonder, amazed by this Babel tower of Klingonesque beauty, if and where from will our modern Heracles will emerge, to transform this gem of astounding impurity into something worthy of the name "encyclopaedia".

As for me, I won't hold my breath for it.

Pascal Monnett

There were some terrific responses in favor of Wikipedia. Several fans flew to their keyboards without reading our article, we suspect, because they gave versions 1 and 3 of the standard template defense without modification.

"Wikipedia might not be fulfilling all of its objectives, but to ridicule a free service honestly attempted, and intended for the benefit of all is pretty low. Do you poke fun at the Salvation Army because of that beggar you saw in the gutter the other day?" asks Jonathan.

So we should think of it as scraps for the informationally destitute. This, perhaps, isn't the high gloss finish we've been led to expect by the embedded reporters.

Here's another that argues volunteer efforts should not be criticized:

It would be more like attending the complimentary breakfast in the church event hall and telling the old ladies that their coffee sucks. You didn't pay for the service, and these people have volunteered their valuable time for the good of the community. If you think you can do better, you should roll up your sleeves and do it, and stop whining.

So if you don't write for it, to criticize it. Then there's the more extreme cousin of this argument, the "don't use it, don't criticize it defense", here expressed by Dan Grey:

"Many of the criticisms you raise are valid... but so what? People are free to NOT use it - the simple truth is that its very popular."

But we are free to criticize things that affect us that we don't use. Do I have to buy a Hummer before I can criticize gas guzzling cars? And in order to criticize my government I should start my own country, perhaps, too. Free speech could rapidly become a very expensive business!

"This article was terrble [sic], and you KNOW it. It's biased and unfair, and completely misrepresents the project. You deliberately wrote this article in the manner you did, probably to gain advertising revenue," opines Jonathan Stewart.

"This has seriously hurt my opinion of the Register, which i thought to be crude, but accurate. I must now seriously question the factual accuracy of articles posted on the regsiter."

(You can't make this stuff up.)

Matt Toups, a PhD at Carnegie Mellon, defends his corner by going on the attack:

"Your first few sentences attempt to hand-wavingly conjure up an image of a failed project that rebuffs criticism. these are but the first of many unsubstantiated claims," he writes. "The rest of the article is filled with selective quotes, inappropriate comparisons and cheap sarcastic attacks. you have complaints about quality and objectivity? Ha! As if your article demonstrated any of these things. Anyway, I assume you know how weak the article was."

"Clearly you are not qualified to comment on these matters, nor are you qualified to relate the issue to the public.

"good day."


So there.

Just feel the anger, the incomprehension, the sense that anyone criticising the project must have dark and dastardly motives:

"I cannot believe you are a a stupid, stubborn, and illogical person, but your stance towards wikipedia (and the comment about waitors throwing food, and being only as good as your worst article) is either the result of ignorant rage or an advertisement. Journalistic integrity requires you to disclose any personal or business reason you may have to post such an article. Please include either this full disclosure or append a statement as to how you learned to make up for being slow with spite.

jason thalken

Jason is another student. He's a Computational Condensed Matter Theory Physicist - but this Wikipedia criticism, he simply cannot Compute.

There must be an agenda. There must be:

hey jackass

wikipedia is about a million times more useful than your stupid article. your jottings are more low-quality and biased than any wiki entry i've read. what's your agenda?

jon lovitz

It's all a big conspiracy Jon. We're monitoring your brain patterns as you fiddle.

As we mentioned earlier, a year ago we'd get a lot of these but now there are just a handful, and the relief from the Wiki-wary is palpable.

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. ®