Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/10/27/wikipedia_britannica_and_linux/

Why Wikipedia isn't like Linux

And why Britannica isn't sweating

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Letters, 27th October 2005 00:39 GMT

Letters We have more letters for and against Wikipedia. There's much less snarling and YDGIs ["You don't Get It!"] from the project's supporters this time. Here, we'll discuss a much-quoted comparison by enthusiasts of "collective intelligence" between Wikipedia and Linux.

But first we asked the Encyclopedia Britannica if it was concerned about the project. Not really, spokesman Tom Panelas told us:

"People who use Wikipedia either wouldn't have done anything before - they didn't go to the library to get the information - or they're people who are using Wikipedia and Britannica, and others. To some degree, the rising tide lifts all boats," he said.

"The Wikipedia people seem happy to overstate its merits and understate its shortcomings," says Panelas.

Panelas blames reporters for suspending disbelief and becoming "embedded".

(That's because as a priori believers in "collective intelligence", they're not too fussy about making the details (or "facts" as we like to call 'em) fit the theory. Reporters like Newsweek's Steven Levy are essentially propagandists or evangelists for the idea, and overlook quality issues and consequences.)

Something that aspires to be an encyclopedia should be judged by what it omits, and the weight given to important subjects, he adds.

"An Encyclopedia has a certain character to it that involves not just accuracy but a personal level of eloquence or balance. Subjects are supposed to be covered in proportion to their significance; those values of accuracy don't seem obvious to people, but they sense when it's not there."

Quality doesn't matter to everyone, but it does matter to very many people, Panelas says -

"Some people need scrupulously accurate information, and some people are happy with myths and misinformation. Sometimes you just need some information, and sometimes you need accurate information."

That's a point echoed by former Britannica editor Robert McHenry, who spoke to us last week. With entropy now setting in, Wikipedia has a choice between remaining utopian and open, or improving its quality with real expertise.

"There are two kind of users, and both have something in common: they have a question that needs an answer. But a subset strongly desires that the answer should be correct."

[McHenry's column this week touches on the subject here.

Was McHenry concerned about "inforot", or worried that our children might ISNOT be learning much from Wikipedia?

"I'm not that concerned - the process of what we're doing is bringing critical tools to bear upon Wikipedia. It's the case that it's been quite a success so far on their own terms: where they themselves define success."

"But it isn't successful, and looks like it won't be."

Why is it failing?

"Because they've boxed themselves in by ideology. The more they try to impose standards, the more the utopian user community will peel away and find something else to do."

"It was always a doomed idea. It was bad from the start. But it's got the public playing the encyclopedia game. To extend the analogy, it's also like playing a game in the sense that playing it has no consequences. If something goes wrong, you just restart. No problem!"

To sum up a long and articulate email, Daan Strebe describes Wikipedia as oversold, but "good enough". Only the naïve trust it completely, he argues:

"The high entropy characterizing many articles isn't much of a problem as long as one uses Wikipedia for what's it's good for. Obviously you must stay away from controversial topics and ephemeral pop-culture material, but those are no real limitation since such topics tend to be represented well elsewhere anyway. Fortunately such articles provide a fine magnet for Wiki-diddlers who might otherwise be drawn to vandalizing some of the better, if less popular, articles."

"The criticisms against Wikipedia certainly hold up if one judges Wikipedia as an authoritative reference. Perhaps its promoters try to advertise it as one. I think of it only as a reference lacking authority, like the rest of the Web. It's a convenient repository for people to archive (more or less) encyclopedic material they otherwise would have created a custom web page for, with all its hazards of obsolete links and expiring domain names. Wikipedia thereby has proved very useful."

Baz Leighton begs to differ. Being OK in parts isn't good enough. He says, quite simply:

"Edit Delete "Wikipedia" Insert " Wonkipedia" End"

Ian Johnston raises an ironic point often overlooked, and brings a familiar tale:

"Am I right in thinking that the Wikipedia devotees who prides themselves on despising authority (I'm sorry, that should have been "so-called authority") are, by and large, the same bunch who whine that Wikipedia isn't accepted as a reputable reference ... that it is not seen as an authority?"

Yes. And Ian describes how his one experience of Wikipedia's inforot and entropy deterred him from ever contributing again:

"I've only had one quick and experimental experience with the damn thing myself. I corrected some howling, stupid, this-will-get-you-a-fail-in-first-year-engineering-exams mistakes in the article on the Joule cycle (gas turbine). My corrections were undone - back to the howling mistakes - within less than an hour."

And Bryn Jones adds -

"My personal view of Wikipedia is that it's a great reference tool for forum trolls. In fact I think it should be renamed 'Forumtroll.org'. Anybody who uses it for anything else (besides maybe winning an argument - which google can do too) is asking for trouble."

Speaking of which, info-rot is now infecting Google's dictionary:

"I noticed the line about Wikipedia clogging Google, and was struck immediately by the fact that Wikipedia entries not only appear in regular Google searches, but in those using the 'define' operator alongside such projects as WordNet at Princeton and so forth," writes Guy Edwards.

"Perhaps Google needs to introduce a marker of reliability for its 'define' entries?"

We'll ask.

Now for something resembling an official rebuttal - a very friendly email from David Gerard, a senior Wikipedia "administrator/janitor". He writes, "Wikipedia is of mediocre quality with some really good bits".

Of Encyclopedia Britannica, David says "It's of consistent high quality, it's one of the truly great books of Anglophone culture and it's doomed."

Oh. Why does David want to replace something truly great and of high quality with something mediocre? He says it's inevitable:

"Commercial encyclopedias are doomed anyway because, as Microsoft is finding out with Linux, it's hard to compete with free.

"If we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it's going to have to be a good Wikipedia, because everything else will have been undercut. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won't be anything."

Which implies that McHenry's subset of people who care about quality is too small to make a difference. Ah, quality: it's the Elephant In The Room, and Wiki people either say quality doesn't exist ("all sources have errors") or that quality doesn't matter.

This brings us to the Linux comparison you've been waiting for so patiently. The Hive Mind people often like to lump the two together.

Reader Steve Thair puts it this way. "Why is Wikipedia - an encyclopedia where people contribute their work for free = 'bad', while Open-source software - computer programs where people contribute their work for free = 'good'. Somewhere there has to be a key difference in the process OR a key difference in the perceptions of the output of that process.

The two produce very different results, argues Carlo Graziani, and only if you willfully misunderstand the social relations of the Linux kernel project can you compare the two. He puts it very succinctly indeed:

I'm relieved to see other people are also wary of information that they get from a source whose organizing principle appears to be that twenty jackasses make an expert.

Although after reading your take on Wikipedia, it appears that the actual situation is worse - the output produced by twenty jackasses plus one expert is indistinguishable from what would be produced by twenty-one jackasses.

The odd thing is, many of the jackasses that you angered really should know better.

They are huge fans of the most conspicuous success story in the history of Internet-based collaboration: the Linux kernel. Which is not produced by a radically-democratic value-neutral mob, but rather by a pyramidal hierarchy of maintainers - experts, so judged by their peers - who exercise strong control over what code is allowed in the kernel tree.

It's worth reflecting on the reason Wiki-kernel would never fly: code actually has to work, not merely be written.

I think that's very worth noting.

The elusive beastie called "Collective Intelligence" slips from sight, while the Elephant In The Room called "Quality" just gave us another swish of its tail. ®