Wiki bad or wiki good?

One problem with the participation model is that so much of it is fueled by idealists. Well, it’s not totally a problem, because we need idealists. But it makes the “movement” behind the model seem naive to the more realistic and/or cynical.

I like to think I’m more cynical than not, though I often surprise myself with an occasional rash of gullibility. (I’ve posted stuff here that, looking back, I have to roll my eyes at.)

Wikis (just google it if you need context) have their orthodox fanatics, for sure. There are tons of people who are appalled that anyone would sully a simple, elegant wiki with login authorization or levels of access, for example. It’s not “the Wiki Way!”

But that’s like the first person to invent the wheel being angry when someone adds an axle.

Reflecting its somewhat idealistic origins, the wiki concept started with complete openness, and is now having to mature into other less specialized uses with more general audiences (or, for that matter, more specialized audiences), and it’s having to adapt some more “closed” genetic code for those environments. (Kind of like wheels eventually need tires, brakes and differentials….)

Over at The Register, Andrew Orlowski sneeringly opines about Wikipedia, that the “inner sanctum” is finally admitting the system isn’t flawless and all things Wiki aren’t necessarily holy and beyond criticism. Well, yeah, if that’s true, that’s a good thing. He also points out that Wikipedia is now getting replicated all over the web in spots like I would agree that this is probably not a good idea — taking the wiki articles out of the context of Wikipedia leads people at other sites to think that this is “published” official information, when if they were on Wikipedia they at least understand that it’s editable by anybody, and therefore somewhat less official.

What I don’t especially appreciate about the article is the patronizing stance. It’s dismissive of the participation model, treating it as so much pot-induced hippie talk. When the fact is, many more knowledgeable and experienced people have endorsed this concept and used it in the real world. (Two examples: John Seely Brown’s “Eureka” knowledge network at Xerox; and CAVNET at the US Military.) Are these the idealistic Wiki concept, with no vetting or hierarchy? No. But the “ideal” wiki in any serious real-world endeavor is a straw-man example. Peter Morville recently wrote a more reasoned and informed take on Wikipedia in his column on Authority. See? There are mature perspectives on the usefulness of the model that don’t buy into the hype.

Nick Carr (whose blog I’d not even seen until yesterday, but which is suddenly gotten me sucked into its comments here and there) had this to say in
The law of the wiki

It reveals that collectivism and intelligence are actually inversely correlated. Here, then, is what I’ll propose as the Law of the Wiki: Output quality declines as the number of contributors increases. Making matters worse, the best contributors will tend to become more and more alienated as they watch their work get mucked up by the knuckleheads, and they’ll eventually stop contributing altogether…

I commented the following: I don’t think it’s necessarily true that the number of participants decreases the quality of the output. It depends on the subject and the people involved. Two physicists can write an entry on Quantum Mechanics, but twenty of them can fill it out will all kinds of specialized information that only two wouldn’t have to offer. But that’s because it’s a circumscribed topic relevant to a somewhat narrow community of practice (which is actually what wiki’s were sort of created to support to begin with).
Once you start opening things up to *anybody* about *anything* — i.e. “vulgar” interests — you will end up with mediocre writing and information about topics that appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s just how human systems structure themselves.
So yes, once you take the “pure wiki” out of the rarified environment of specialists or small groups, you definitely have to impose some top-down structure and peer review. I don’t think anyone but the most absurdly wide-eyed idealists would say differently.

He answers that he was indeed talking about the purely democratic wiki, and also asks if even in the specialized info areas, there could be such a thing as “too many” involved, that would erode quality.

I think that’s entirely possible, sure. But to some degree I wonder if it misses the point.

In fact, calling Wikipedia after an encyclopedia kind of misses the point too. I think it’s part of what’s throwing so many people off. But I’m not sure what else to call it, really. Other than “The Big General Knowledge Wiki.”

To my knowledge, even the first simple “idealistic” wikis were never meant as “authoritative” sources of knowledge (and by authority here, I mean the conventionally agreed upon and empirically verified facts on a topic). It was a place for quick gatherings over certain topics, simple entry and editing, for groups of people who wanted a place where all their thoughts could stick for later viewing and shaping. That’s great … and that’s what Wikipedia really is, just very very large. It does its job very well: it acts as a quick, simple repository of what people are thinking or communicating about particular topics. It’s not made for eloquence or even necessarily permanence.

Wikipedia is an experiment in taking that totally open environment (the wiki) and seeing what happens if we layer into it elements of traditional knowledge-authority-making. And (I think wisely) the organizers started with as little structure as possible rather than assuming it needed too much. Because it’s a living, breathing entity that can change over time through the actions of its community, it didn’t have to be a Parthenon. It just had to be a decent Quonset Hut. The other feature can be added and tweaked as needed.

As for the messiness and unevenness, I think people need to get over it. If you prefer your information pre-packaged and pre-authorized, go to the traditonal sources (not that they’ll all be correct, but at least you won’t get in *trouble* for it, probably — you can always say “I checked in a real book!” Kind of like all those companies using Linux even though they bought it from IBM — because it’s more official and feels less risky and messy.)

All Wikipedia does is take the relatively invisible market of ideas, the activity of the knowledge hive, and make it visible, in all its messy glory. “Official” knowledge came from the same hive — but the activity wasn’t out there for everyone to watch. It was in academic conferences or the editorial meetings at People magazine.

But we still need “peer reviewed” authoritative decisionmaking around what information should be referred to when somebody wants “the right answer.”

So, Wikipedia, I think, ought to explain this somehow to its users. Now that the community using it has gone way beyond the early adopter crowd, and hits on all kinds of things on Google are pointing to Wikipedia in the first 10 lines, they probably should let people know: what you read here was put here mostly by people like you. Always check primary sources, etc etc etc .

At some point, Wikipedia needs to have ways of denoting how ‘official’ something is — maybe a coding system, where the Quantum Physics page has several physicists looking after it, but the J-Lo page is basically a free for all?

I believe in the Wiki Way. I do. I just think it’s only one virtue among many, and that it has to be shaped to meet the demands of different contexts.

Author: Andrew Hinton

I use information to architect better places for humans. More at

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