"...for the scientific community, the most critical organ of the incentive system is the cycle of credit."
September 3, 2009 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Just how credible is Wikipedia? While some have tested this empirically, others have chosen more dubious methodology. For a site that gives no credit to its post authors, one wonders, why even bother?
posted by iamkimiam (94 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
The "empirically" hyperlink is to First Monday. Opening sentence
"Wikipedia is an free, online encyclopaedia..."
FAIL.

tl;dr.
posted by ericb at 11:19 PM on September 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


The thing I like about Wikipedia is that subjects can't be owned by one or two so called experts in the field. Often self anointed experts because they are clever attention/media whores.

For the level I find it useful it I don't think Wikipedia has ever let me down.

I don't understand all the Wiki hate. Knee jerk Wiki hate = knee jerk knee jerk Wiki hate, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:21 PM on September 3, 2009 [9 favorites]


wut
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:22 PM on September 3, 2009


I've gotten to where I find myself astonished when I search Wikipedia for something and it ISN'T there. I've learned so much background information about rock groups and albums they have recorded, or other random pieces of pop culture. Just recently I took a brief crash course on electromagnetism and magnetic induction (inspired by the Blue), and while I cannot say I have working knowledge, Wikipedia certainly gave me enough of an overview that I was able to clear up my own confusion about the matter.

I think the areas where Wikipedia does start to fall apart have to do with controversial figures or incidents where various groups and their self-appointed evangelists decide that spin is necessary on an article. Or when Stephen Colbert decides to unleash his army to cause disinformation, such as when he make it a "fact" that elephants are doing better population-wise than they really are.

But overall, it is an astounding body of knowledge about nearly everything, and I can't believe how much I enjoy using it.
posted by hippybear at 11:27 PM on September 3, 2009 [5 favorites]


I've learned so much background information about rock groups
But you probably think that Layzie Bone was "born 1973".
posted by tellurian at 11:30 PM on September 3, 2009


.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:35 PM on September 3, 2009


The thing I like about Wikipedia is that subjects can't be owned by one or two so called experts in the field. Often self anointed experts because they are clever attention/media whores.

Except, of course, that the wiki police do claim ownership over fields. And frequently, they aren't even experts in the field. They're just little Napoleons who get off on backing out newbie editors' edits.

I've fixed grammatical mistakes only to have them backed out within minutes. Seriously... subjects/predicates that don't agree in number, reverted back into place. I can't imagine that somebody really read my edited page and thought, "No, that's incorrect!" and edited it back to bad English. It must certainly have been some anointed asshat backing out my edit as a knee-jerk reaction.
posted by Netzapper at 11:37 PM on September 3, 2009 [20 favorites]


For me Wikipedia is almost a microcosm of the web itself. I love it (to read, not to contribute). I go there all time, the geography of cambodia, the mailliard reaction, anything and everything.

People always hold up the crap pages as some kind of example. But in my opinion, the good outweighs the bad by orders of magnitude. And it's fascinating reading the dicussion page on a controversial article. Wikipedia isn't flawless, but my question is, when has it pretended to be?

One thing I don't really understand as an outsider is this debate about 'deletionists'. I mean wtf. You have this glorious, Borges wet dream of a library that contains literally everything in the world, and you wanna go round deleting stuff? Bizarre. Who cares if it's not notable? Is a rare kind of duck that notable? No more so than a million other things. It's not like wiki is gonna run out of room. I dislike reading those fascists when they hit a page and start deleting, as if they are somehow the owners or guardians of knowledge.

This said, I suppose it just highlights the essentially human core of wikipedia.
posted by smoke at 11:39 PM on September 3, 2009 [13 favorites]


Just how credible is Wikipedia?

Well, the article for heterochromia used to say that yetis were disproportionately affected. Make of that what you will.
posted by lekvar at 11:40 PM on September 3, 2009


Those pictures in the heterochromia link are just awesome. Check out the sternly smiling pup! Also, learned a new medical term, thanks lekvar and Wikipedia!
posted by iamkimiam at 11:47 PM on September 3, 2009


It must certainly have been some anointed asshat backing out my edit as a knee-jerk reaction.

And also increasing their total edit count.
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:49 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think "deletionists" take the position "this isn't interesting to me, therefore it's not interesting". Combine that with the overwhelming nerdiness of the editorial population, and the result is that every rock, tree and tuft of grass in Middle Earth has about 70 categories devoted to it, but creating categories about things or people that actually exist is "overcategorization". If it's not found in Tolkien, Star Wars, Manga or your mom's basement, then it's without value or interest.

I particularly love the "________ in Popular Culture" section of damn near every article. There are always lots of entries -- sometimes an overwhelming majority -- about references to the subject in anime and manga. Which to some of the rest of is as significant as the fact that it figured in a dream you once had when you were running a 104° fever.

All well and good, chaq'un a son gout as they say when they don't feel like typing ô, but there should be a Wikipedia for the rest of us: before you can edit it you have to prove that you've had both sex and a job.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:53 PM on September 3, 2009 [22 favorites]


Except, of course, that the wiki police do claim ownership over fields. And frequently, they aren't even experts in the field. They're just little Napoleons who get off on backing out newbie editors' edits.

I've fixed grammatical mistakes only to have them backed out within minutes.


Yikes. I didn't know such carry-on existed. I'll bear that in mind, cheers.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:54 PM on September 3, 2009


Wikipedia is a case of being "good enough" for the price. It just happens that most information on Wikipedia is publicly available for free, so the investment changes to time. Someone could either search for reputable sources of information on the population density of New Jersey or what the Balfour Declaration of 1926 was about, or they could search it on Wikipedia with an instant link to the information, usually with source citations.

Sure, on occasion you find out that Bill Gates moonlights as a cabaret dancer or that the full text of the Treaty of Westphalia was "tl;dr", but the odds of significant vandalism have dropped enough that most people simply don't care. Genuine mistakes happen, but they are typically minor enough that Wikipedia's information is good enough for everyday purposes.

Even peer-reviewed academic journals are fooled at times. Sure, minute details are fought over for so long that it becomes ridiculous, but when your peer review group consists of literally millions of people, it's easier to fix the glaring mistakes. After all, name recognition on the Internet is fine, but what's more important than anything else in the world could ever hope to be is telling other people on the Internet that they're wrong and you're right.
posted by Saydur at 11:57 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love Wikipedia. You just have to go into it understanding it is "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy" not the (much worse selling) "Encyclopedia Galactica."
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:03 AM on September 4, 2009 [23 favorites]


I was under the impression that it was virtually impossible to edit any moderately well-trafficked article on Wikipedia without it being reverted within seconds by the Overminds or whatever.
posted by Avenger at 12:06 AM on September 4, 2009


Um... actually THIS is the Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy.

Something else that is interesting is that each language version of Wikipedia is independently grown by that language group / culture. Reading pages on the same topic in different languages can yield very different impressions of what is important about that topic, etc.
posted by hippybear at 12:10 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's a failure of "crowd sourcing" and the idea that there is such a thing as "smart mobs". Yes, I've read those books. I find them lacking in evidence and only functional as far as communism is only functional in small groups, and does not extend beyond the Monkey Sphere (yes, I think it's actually true and makes a fuck load more sense than anything else out there, because I couldn't give a shit about more than 100 people, seriously).

Mind you, it is nice that someone decided to make something that would _try_ to make information available for free (before the internet, you had to by Encyclopedia's from door to door salesmen, and they cost a whole lot on a middle class income). But seriously. Maybe if everyone paid a dollar to Encyclopedia Britannica they'd post an online version that could be easily referenced. Oh, wait, they do.
posted by daq at 12:19 AM on September 4, 2009


Much as I hate to admit it, I have had both sex with a female and held a real job at various points in my life (at least once even simultaneously, though the actual sex did not, I must sadly admit, occur while working on the job). Yet I flagrantly edit the current version of Wikipedia with this sad record of having had both sex and employment.

Further, I've made several thousand misspelling and grammar fixes to Wikipedia, edits that are very seldom changed back. If they are changed back to an incorrect version, and I call the editor on it, the error generally gets re-fixed. Asshats editors there are, but not so much for typos and grammar mistakes. Of course, unregistered IPs do get more of that sort of auto-revert abuse than registered users, due to the general perception of high vandalism from unregistered editors, a perception backed by actual vandalism statistics.

One trick to Wikipedia, something a lot of people either never learn or can make themselves do, is to try to completely disassociate one's ego from the edits one makes. Some percentage of an editor's valid edits will not stick, either due to the edit appearing in a hypercontroversial article, because of inappropriate article ownership by another editor, or simply as a victim of general asshattery. Accept this failure as a fact of nature and move on. If you're a decent editor who follows the guidelines, the large majority of your changes, if valid and wide in scope, will be accepted and incrementally improve Wikipedia.
posted by mdevore at 12:20 AM on September 4, 2009 [11 favorites]


Just recently I took a brief crash course on electromagnetism and magnetic induction (inspired by the Blue), and while I cannot say I have working knowledge, Wikipedia certainly gave me enough of an overview that I was able to clear up my own confusion about the matter.

I recently read a fascinating piece on the Huns... how they probably weren't a unified tribe or culture... and that they DIDN'T SETTLE IN MODERN DAY GERMANY which I had always assumed! The Germans = Huns myth was more to do with a throw away line from a politician and the shape of their soldiers' hats.

I've learnt tens of dozens of amazing snippets like that by idly surfing Wikipedia [amazing to me – I’m easily amazed by trivia and factoids].

//what I leant on Wiki derail.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:21 AM on September 4, 2009


George_Spiggott: but there should be a Wikipedia for the rest of us

Yes. At least make a default setting so the page hides (does not even load) the trivia sections. Then make the bar for inclusion in the trivia sections as low as you like, but let people not see those sections unless they click the "Display Trivia" button.


George Spiggott in Popular Culture

* George Spiggott was the name of the Satan character played by Peter Cook in the movie Bedazzled (1967).
posted by pracowity at 12:22 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


There was a study in 2005 published in Nature that directly compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, and found that Britannica had slightly fewer minor errors, but just as many major errors.

There's also the Wikipedia page, "Errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica." Get it? The errors that appear on that page are pretty similar in nature to the "errors" forged in the dubious methodology.
posted by one_bean at 12:26 AM on September 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oops, I should've dug deeper... there's an entire Wikipedia page on external peer review of Wikipedia. If that doesn't show you the power of the site, I don't know what will.
posted by one_bean at 12:30 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


By the way, I really do value wikipedia. It's pretty awesome for background research on all sorts of topics.

I'm just saying, the idea that wikipedia is truly editable by anyone is somewhat misleading. It is editable by anyone. But if their hive doesn't think you have sufficient karma, it gets backed right back out. And there is no deference to real authority on the subject... Stephen Hawking editing quantum theory pages will get reverted just as often as I do.
posted by Netzapper at 12:34 AM on September 4, 2009


re: Media whore - awful sounding term, but not my theory. My missus attended a talk by famous Australian epidemiologist noted for her public health work and her research into child and maternal health, Fiona Stanley.

It was a "Wimmin in Business" type networking chin wag aimed at female business leaders. She straight up attributed a lot of her success to being a "media whore". Apparently it drew a lot of shocked gasps and caused much frowning in sectors of the audience. Too funny.

But come annual Federal Government science funding time... Dr Fiona is fair dinkum rolling in the dollars year after year.

posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:34 AM on September 4, 2009


"Believe it or not". This idiot suggests testing Wikipedia by including facts that are true but implausible. Wikipedia is way ahead of him - last April Fool's Day they listed a pageful of items that sounded like hoaxes but were in fact all true. Brilliant - vive La Wikipedie, I say.
posted by Major Tom at 12:54 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


ummm...I'm really quite confused about this post.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:13 AM on September 4, 2009


Wikipedia is just another glaring bit of evidence that most "facts" are in fact "opinion", or at least "interpretation", and this shifts over time, in different places, when expressed in different languages, etc. Particularly historical / political / sociological "facts." Some things are fairly unshakeable -- but maybe those things are less interesting, on the whole, than more shakeable "facts." And, of course, some facts change. I think it's wisest to see Wikipedia as yet another "first rough draft of history that will never really be completed about a world we can never really understand…," and enjoy it as such.
posted by chavenet at 1:47 AM on September 4, 2009


Why even worry about the credibility of a Wikipedia article? Just skim through the article and then go read the article's sources directly; there are usually hyperlinks to the derivative books, newspapers, magazines, and scientific papers at the bottom of the page. And if it's an article without good verifiable sources then by Wikipedia's own standards it's definitely not a credible article and there's usually a big ugly notice at the top telling you so.
posted by XMLicious at 1:56 AM on September 4, 2009 [7 favorites]


is your wikipedia untrustworthy? feel your information might be tainted? try new wikitrust! orange color-coded 'highlights' on the text tell you how often a posters edits have been deleted...a dark orange background means you're listening to a big fat liar, a white background tells you your information is practically guaranteed! try it today!

(i heard about this when it was in beta a year or so ago...apparently it's now online...does it work for you?)
posted by sexyrobot at 2:33 AM on September 4, 2009


Ikkyu2's essay.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:36 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to confess I took part in Wikipedia vandalism with a friend, on one of the pages for the game Doom. If anyone was wondering, Ed and Larry Cacodemon are not real people.
posted by palidor at 2:44 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I will never understand why people assume that any information will ever be error proof.

Of course Wikipedia is not entirely factual, but neither is anything else.
posted by Allan Gordon at 3:15 AM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Why even bother" is a good question, though I'm not sure I agree that the average Wikipedian's motivation is similar to that of a scientist.

I think the urge to explain things, to tell people stuff, is probably just a basic human need - alright, perhaps mainly a male human need - and it may well be that an unnoticed benefit of Wikipedia is allowing various nerds to vent all sorts of stuff which otherwise someone somewhere would have to sit and listen to.
posted by Phanx at 3:16 AM on September 4, 2009


I particularly love the "________ in Popular Culture" section of damn near every article. There are always lots of entries -- sometimes an overwhelming majority -- about references to the subject in anime and manga.

I clean 'em up. It takes less than 30 seconds to click "Edit Page," wipe out 90% of the trivia section, add an edit note that says "deleted tangential and non-notable references to pop music and cartoons" and then "Save Page."

These changes stick 80% of the time.

In cases where people just can't restrain themselves from mentioning that Green Day mentioned Catcher in the Rye in a live concert recording in 1992, or Ashlee Simpson totally like wore a t-shirt once that totally said like Holden Rules! on it, you create a new page called "X in Popular Culture," cut and paste the ream of bullshit into it, delete the bullshit from the main article page, and add a note saying "direct triva to the X in Popular Culture page please." That takes about three minutes.

I don't do this compulsively, but once every couple of months, if I notice an article getting overrun by fancruft, I'll go the "X in Popular Culture" route. Sometimes the page gets deleted, in which case I go back to deleting the crap and sticking "deleted trivia" notes in the edit window.
posted by Shepherd at 3:38 AM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


My secret fanboyism is release dates of perfumes and architects of lesser known buildings. I add this knowledge to the wikipedia and have it deleted or reverted 85% of the time. Then I asd it again and it stays.
posted by dabitch at 4:01 AM on September 4, 2009


Thanks, Shepherd. I hate the "...in popular culture" sections that are rampant on the English language WP as well, but haven't mustered the energy to start deleting them, but I think I will now.
posted by Harald74 at 4:14 AM on September 4, 2009


Why even worry about the credibility of a Wikipedia article? Just skim through the article and then go read the article's sources directly; there are usually hyperlinks to the derivative books, newspapers, magazines, and scientific papers at the bottom of the page. And if it's an article without good verifiable sources then by Wikipedia's own standards it's definitely not a credible article and there's usually a big ugly notice at the top telling you so.

Yep. I use Wikipedia as a Bibliography, basically; I've used it in my own research, but I always follow the "source" links to ascertain whether the information I'm reading is true or if it was someone's personal web page or some such. For really dubious info I do an independent Google search for that info, and if I can find a different credible source to back it up, good.

I actually edited something once -- the plot summation for my favorite cult movie ever was only half-complete. (They TOTALLY left out the part where the turkey-headed monster is also vampiric! And attacks junkies! And then is saved by Jesus!)

Someone I know has his own entry in Wikipedia; he's a writer for MAD Magazine. And, sometimes he used to get bored and creatively edit his own entry.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:56 AM on September 4, 2009


Mind you, it is nice that someone decided to make something that would _try_ to make information available for free (before the internet, you had to by Encyclopedia's from door to door salesmen, and they cost a whole lot on a middle class income). But seriously. Maybe if everyone paid a dollar to Encyclopedia Britannica they'd post an online version that could be easily referenced. Oh, wait, they do.

Wikipedia has a much larger scope than pretty much any similar resource though. When I post answers in AskMe I generally cite references if I'm making any factual claims, and more often than not finding the Wikipedia is the fastest way to get a general overview and links to original sources for just about any topic.

For instance, a few days ago I linked to the critical reception section of Blood Meridian to point out that it's generally considered to be well written. Meanwhile that Encyclopedia Britannica site on has a general page about the author, Cormac McCarthy, which only contains a line mentioning that he wrote Blood Meridian. And even though the Britannica article is not much more than a list of his novels, it's a "premium" article that I can't read for free for more than 10 seconds without having the page get covered up with a login screen.
posted by burnmp3s at 5:18 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


"The thing I like about Wikipedia is that subjects can't be owned by one or two so called experts in the field."
Like Ikkyu2's essay says, it's a disaster zone precisely because it's exasperating for a real expert to try to edit an article properly, when 'so-called experts' have more time and seem to actively enjoy engaging in edit wars.
posted by edd at 5:25 AM on September 4, 2009


Complain about capricious Wikipedia editors all you want, but keep this in mind.
posted by DU at 5:41 AM on September 4, 2009


Err...I mean this.
posted by DU at 5:41 AM on September 4, 2009


See I disagree with Ikkyu2's article. What's his describing isn't an encyclopaedia - it's a crystalline knowledge hive of never-to-be-achieved proportions.

If there was a way to ensure his changes stayed on the page over anyone else's, there's no way we would have 3,023,913 articles in English and god knows how many in other languages. No way in hell. It might have 1500 articles. They would be great articles. Truly awesome, referenceable articles. But there would be so few of them. And it wouldn't stop the problem, only abate it somewhat.

But who would write the article on Roy Sullivan?

I don't want wikipedia for Ikkyu2's vision. You can find the kind of info he talks about pretty easily with proper research and google. Wiki is a compendium of human thought, with all the ambition, ego, generosity and good faith that goes with it.
posted by smoke at 6:11 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read the article, but for the life of me I still can't answer the question "why do people do it?" Is it for validation, acknowledgement, what? What is the psychological motivation?
posted by Pastabagel at 6:11 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is what a library catalogue should have been. Doing research papers on topics in community college it was extremely useful to get a summary, and then move on to the external links for sources, and then from those to others, and so on. The little equation GIF's were great too for the 3 physics papers I had to do.

Heading into the UMich though... probably will still use Wikipedia for a summary, and then go on to 'Further Reading' at the Library, and so on. That way I can confirm or refute with their own resources.

IMHO: Wikipedia, like any other encyclopedia, is as credible as you can get. The only thing that bogs it down are vandals and some poorly cited/written articles here and there, or IOW, those articles I avoid while researching for papers.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 6:30 AM on September 4, 2009


I'm just glad the deletionists finally seem to have lost The Game.
posted by haveanicesummer at 6:34 AM on September 4, 2009


Pastabagel: "I still can't answer the question "why do people do it?" Is it for validation, acknowledgement, what? What is the psychological motivation?"

It varies, obviously. I did early work on the article for the Military Commissions Act of 2006 because I thought it failed to convey what a giant leap towards fascism the Act represented. I contributed a lot to the article on Cat Cora because I like Iron Chef America. And I fought long and hard to have both words capitalized in the article on the Montreal Screwjob because I'm a pedant.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:34 AM on September 4, 2009


Wikipedia is not creditable. Any idiot can go in there and make whatever changes they wish. Yeah it can be changed back but what if the idiot is an editor? I have tried to fix some of their spelling and grammar before only to have it changed back. When I talked to the editors they said I was wrong and if I tried to edit it again they would have my IP blocked. Then it goes into the "I've edited 100's of pages and you have not"argument. When anyone answers a questions and says they saw it on wikipedia I laugh at them and tell them to research whatever the old fashion way. Wikipedia is what fast food is to the American diet: it is quick and fast instant gratification but it is NOT even remotely good for you. They should just take it down.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 6:35 AM on September 4, 2009


I just want wikipedia somehow dynamically embedded with imdb, discogs and tvtropes, and then the internet would somehow finally be perfect.
posted by Theta States at 6:40 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel, it's in our nature to share the knowledge we have to others. I guess it's a remnant of our cave-dwelling days when public school funds we not as easily available as they are today.

Like it is in our nature to equate cost with quality. And then question an alternative that is superior, simply because it doesn't cost us a thing.
posted by dearsina at 6:41 AM on September 4, 2009


They should just take it down. posted by Mastercheddaar

Good idea, I'll let them know, should be down in a couple days.
posted by haveanicesummer at 6:42 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is what fast food is to the American diet: it is quick and fast instant gratification but it is NOT even remotely good for you. They should just take it down.

Take down a free and moderately useful site because there are abuses inherent within it's systemic power structure?
Now where have I heard that before? ;)
posted by Theta States at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I once saw a speed limit sign that a vandal had changed from 50 to 80. Regardless, I still read (if not obey) speed limit signs and just rely on my internal BS meter as to whether the information they contain is correct.

It's a pretty good system that has worked quite well for me.
posted by wabashbdw at 7:00 AM on September 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


Netzapper's eponysterical response is exactly the problem with wikipedia. The entry on the arts organization I work for was full of huge omissions, factual errors, and a clear bias toward a former (fired) employee. We attempted to edit, were told that there was a policy against the subject of an entry editing it about themselves (fair enough), so we contacted a local scholar to fix and update it. All of his edits were changed imMEdiately (I mean like within minutes). We contacted the powers that be at Wikipedia, who said they would not do anything, and then the article's editor took steps to have our intern, our business manager and the scholar banned forever from editing.

The real irony is that it was one of our interns who set up the article in the first place.

We eventually managed to trace the editor back to the fired employee and sent documentation to wikipedia to demonstrate bias in the article. They reinstated our employees as editors, added in the missing info into our entry, but never fixed the bias or the factual errors.

I use Wikipedia as much as anyone, it's great, but I do not trust a word of it without seeing it confirmed somewhere else by an expert in the old fashioned sense.
posted by nax at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is a great discussion but I have to ask what the point of it is. Wikipedia does not care about these issues. They're like the monolithic eBay/Paypal monopoly that just exists, keeping the status quo; yes, they're popular and work quite well in some areas of interest, but with all kinds of annoyances and problems and no competition on the horizon. I don't think there's been any evidence that the Wikipedia heads care about the issues we're describing.

I guess if there's ever going to be a Wikipedia replacement then we probably have a serious topic for discussion here on how to properly balance the mix of experts, incentive, and anonymous edits.

How come Citizendium hasn't been brought up? I thought it was supposed to fix many of these issues. I would contribute there but it seems like they're gone to the polar opposite of the authority spectrum when what is needed is something in between.
posted by crapmatic at 7:05 AM on September 4, 2009


Babies in Popular Culture
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:06 AM on September 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


I have tried to fix some of their spelling and grammar before only to have it changed back. When I talked to the editors they said I was wrong and if I tried to edit it again they would have my IP blocked.

Links or it didn't happen.
posted by DU at 7:09 AM on September 4, 2009


I use Wikipedia as much as anyone, it's great, but I do not trust a word of it without seeing it confirmed somewhere else by an expert in the old fashioned sense.

Unlike with....?
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on September 4, 2009


Pastabagel: I read the article, but for the life of me I still can't answer the question 'why do people do it?' Is it for validation, acknowledgement, what? What is the psychological motivation?

It seems to me that it's for the same basic reasons anyone creates anything. Why does a person plant a garden they don't need financially, or make a clay pot when a better, lighter container designed by an engineer and manufactured to industrial tolerances is had much more cheaply at a store, or paint a picture of a landscape when there are so many more landscapes made by much more skilled artists? Even more pertinently - why does anyone make an FPP on MeFi?

I find writing articles on obscure topics entertaining, especially if it's on some historical topic I can obtain massive amounts of intelligence on through Google Books. The combination of the "commanding heights" of being in the distant future and GB and the rest of the internet gives you this sort of intellectual leverage that feels almost superhuman. I like hitting interesting things which haven't had scholarly attention in a hundred years and sometimes I come across topics that actually appear to never have had information consolidated about them before despite fulfilling enough of the Wikipedia criterion for "notability" to not be deleted.

Another aspect of it which I think piques some people's interest is that there's some measure of immortality in it - I would be pretty confident that, barring some sort of major technology-destroying cataclysm in the future, if you write a good article on an obscure and non-controversial topic your piece will still be around 1,000 years from now. More likely at least than anything else related to an unexceptional person surviving, I should think (not that your name will necessarily be attached to it, but most dead people have to be content with only a vestige of their work surviving rather than themselves anyways).

Mastercheddar: Wikipedia is what fast food is to the American diet: it is quick and fast instant gratification but it is NOT even remotely good for you.

Doesn't that just describe what any encyclopedia is? I remember being told in 6th grade that encyclopedia entries weren't really credible sources and shouldn't be used for papers and such.

The difference with a good Wikipedia article is that unlike commercial encyclopedias you have the footnotes for exactly where every bit of information came from and often with a click you can read all of those original sources.

nax: I use Wikipedia as much as anyone, it's great, but I do not trust a word of it without seeing it confirmed somewhere else by an expert in the old fashioned sense.

If you're trusting other encyclopedias without confirmation I don't think you should. The thing about Wikipedia is that you can usually click through to see exactly what the expert said, whereas with other encyclopedias you really do have to just trust the editors.
posted by XMLicious at 7:14 AM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


I imagine Netzapper's particular case might prove an interesting route to eliminating bad admins : organize a venue for cataloging objectively bad and questionable reverts. If enough truly objectively bad reverts are collected, run an RfDA against the admin citing all the bad reverts.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:18 AM on September 4, 2009


I meant to add that when you tackle a topic that no one has ever researched before it's a bit like the whole "the first human eyes to look upon this land" thing from geographic exploration.
posted by XMLicious at 7:18 AM on September 4, 2009


XMLicious-- exactly. Not other encyclopedias, but original source material, or the same information from several sources.

DU-- I'll clarify once I understand what you're asking?
posted by nax at 7:18 AM on September 4, 2009


I use Wikipedia as much as anyone, it's great, but I do not trust a word of it without seeing it confirmed somewhere else by an expert in the old fashioned sense.

What sources do you read/listen to, learn something new and immediately stake your life on it being true? If CNN reports that you can survive jumping off a bridge, would you do it? If a textbook says that bleach is nutritious, will you drink it?

I'm trying to figure out how what you said is a particular indictment of Wikipedia.
posted by DU at 7:22 AM on September 4, 2009


I seldom use Wikipedia (and never the mainstream media) as a final source for factual information that I need to be able to stand behind (I'm not talking about casual use-- like if I want a definition for Dark Matter or something.) So yes, I use the external links alot, I do independent google searches, or I'll come here to MetaFilter which always has lots of great links to obscure sites on arcane subject matter.

My point is that personal experience demonstrated to me the limitations of open source information, and that, like any other source, the hive mind is no more reliable than an individual expert and is as susceptible to bias and distortion. Which I think is what everyone is saying.
posted by nax at 7:28 AM on September 4, 2009


Haha-- realized I used Wikipedia as a source for a bit of arcana on another thread here about 30 minutes ago. Didn't get confirmation from another source, so I guess that's what I mean by "casual use" :P
posted by nax at 7:31 AM on September 4, 2009


I read the article, but for the life of me I still can't answer the question "why do people do it?" Is it for validation, acknowledgement, what? What is the psychological motivation?

The theory I favour is that for the most obsessed users Wikipedia has inadvertently become an MMORPG. (Also here.) There's grinding it out for advancement, levelling, various badges and rewards, alliances ... Why do people do it? To win at doing it.
posted by outlier at 7:31 AM on September 4, 2009 [5 favorites]


The only thing I've ever corrected on Wiki was the article about the Cosby Show character Vanessa Huxtable; someone had written in that her character was revealed in the series finale to have a serious crack prostitution problem that resulted in her being kicked out of the family.

IS NOTHING SACRED??
posted by hermitosis at 7:40 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


How come Citizendium hasn't been brought up?

I'd guess because, as you note, it's gone too far down the "experts only" route, with the result that it's simply stagnated. It's been going over two years, and still has fewer than 12,000 articles in any form, and only 113 that have actually been approved. Randomly testing Wikipedia against Citizendium for a range of in-no-way-obscure topics in major fields of knowledge - I just tried Radiocarbon Dating, Neville Chamberlain, Papio ursinus, The Wire, The Boxer Rebellion, Michel Foucault and the Higgs Boson - resulted in a massive win for Wikipedia on every occasion.
posted by flashboy at 7:42 AM on September 4, 2009


I seldom use Wikipedia (and never the mainstream media) as a final source for factual information that I need to be able to stand behind...

I'm probably ultraparanoid, but I never really use "final sources" at least without qualification, especially if I need to stand behind them. Even in casual conversation, I'm likely to say things like "Well, that's what the Encyclopedia Britannica says, but I've never tried it" or "A, B and C is what happened for me, but that was under conditions X, Y and Z".

It's like the joke about the engineer, the physicist and the mathematician on a train in Scotland. They go past a hill and see a black sheep. "Aha!" says the engineer, "they have black sheep in Scotland!" "They have *at least one* black sheep in Scotland," the physicist corrects. The mathematician adds "...on at least one side."
posted by DU at 7:42 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Something else that is interesting is that each language version of Wikipedia is independently grown by that language group / culture. Reading pages on the same topic in different languages can yield very different impressions of what is important about that topic, etc.

I love doing this - searching around until I find noticeably different pages. It's the most fun for looking up typically American cultural things in other languages. Mostly they're stranger articles just because there are less people around to fix them.

I just found the French page for donut, for example. It's basically like:

"In North America, the police are often mocked for their tendency to have a coffee-and-donut break at the l'épicerie de quartier" (See, interesting concept stuck in there. At the neighborhood grocery store?) "That's why the New York group Lunachicks wrote the song 'Donut.' Among the stickers designed for the rear bumpers of cars" (I guess there's no word for bumpersticker...?), "there is one that is well known, but rarely seen, because it says:"

Bad cop
No Donut"

Now time to check out the discussion page...
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:49 AM on September 4, 2009 [4 favorites]


One of the more amusing vandalisms I reverted was in the Barkley Shut Up and Jam! entry which claimed the name came from something his wife used to say in bed. It even had a citation link (of course the link didn't lead to any sort of citation.) But still!
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:52 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also notable/amusing how much longer the entry for Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden is than the original game.
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:54 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Solon and Thanks: I like the idea of cop-baiting bumper stickers being fundamental to a basic understanding of the concept of donuts. Also I wonder if the mention of a neighborhood grocery store was to prevent french cognitive dissonance if it was mentioned that you would find donuts at "le cafe."
posted by haveanicesummer at 7:57 AM on September 4, 2009


Ah, my favorite Wikipedia article has to be Just Shoot Me's Laura San Giacomo article devoted almost entirely to her breasts, but done so in such a detached encyclopedic tone I didn't know if I was reading the rantings of a pervert or perhaps the most perfect Wikipedia article ever created. Nearly every breast sight gag on the show was chronicled along with any sort of miscelleneous breast trivia you might be interested in. Brilliance.
posted by geoff. at 7:59 AM on September 4, 2009


Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia where porn stars get more detailed articles than do Third World heads of state.
posted by jason's_planet at 8:12 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find Wikipedia super useful when somebody mentions something I should really know about, but for some reason missed out on in my basic education. It's great for culturally bound stuff, basic history, context and backstory to really big events, obscure name droppings, etc.. I can't tell you how many times its saved my butt from sticking my foot in my mouth. Heh.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:22 AM on September 4, 2009


Solon and Thanks: I like the idea of cop-baiting bumper stickers being fundamental to a basic understanding of the concept of donuts.

Yeah. I also like how they imply the bumper sticker is rarely seen because people are afraid of cop retaliation or something.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:30 AM on September 4, 2009


Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia where porn stars get more detailed articles than do Third World heads of state.

"Pornopedia contains 1,753 articels [sic] in English. " None of which appear to be about any heads of state. Well, there's King Cobra.
posted by pracowity at 9:18 AM on September 4, 2009


There was a study in 2005 published in Nature that directly compared the accuracy of Wikipedia and Britannica, and found that Britannica had slightly fewer minor errors, but just as many major errors.

That study was actually pretty flawed.

That said, I edit Wikipedia and find it reasonably useful for quick overviews of various subjects, especially pop-culture subjects. I'm IceCreamEmpress over there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:45 AM on September 4, 2009


From geoff.'s link

"Perhaps the one and only time in which Laura San Giacomo has been publicly seen in a swimsuit was in the movie Nina Takes a Lover (1994)."

it's the Perhaps that gives it an air of wistful melancholy.
posted by The Whelk at 10:06 AM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


Meh. From my anecdotal experience, Wikipedia does as well as Britannica and is infinitely more accessible. From the time I was in high school, I've realized that encyclopedias are not authoritative; they're only useful for a quick impression. Facts require a bit of digging.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:23 AM on September 4, 2009


Ah, my favorite Wikipedia article has to be Just Shoot Me's Laura San Giacomo article devoted almost entirely to her breasts, but done so in such a detached encyclopedic tone I didn't know if I was reading the rantings of a pervert or perhaps the most perfect Wikipedia article ever created.

Wow, that's quite a Laura San Giacomo fetish.

"Perhaps the one and only time in which Laura San Giacomo has been publicly seen in a swimsuit was in the movie Nina Takes a Lover (1994)."

I hate to admit it but I think I actually got dragged to this movie.
posted by blucevalo at 10:45 AM on September 4, 2009


for the life of me I still can't answer the question "why do people do it?" Is it for validation, acknowledgement, what? What is the psychological motivation?

Perhaps you could Ask Mefi?
posted by msalt at 10:49 AM on September 4, 2009


Well I guess I'm in the minority but I like the "____ in Popular Culture" stuff.

Quit taking wikipedia so seriously. It's an informational playground.

Come back to me when there's more information on Earth than Middle-earth.
posted by graventy at 11:05 AM on September 4, 2009


Genuine mistakes happen, but they are typically minor enough that Wikipedia's information is good enough for everyday purposes.
- Saydur

Yup. This is right, and that's great. It's a very good starting place, a quickie reference. If use it all the time, especially for things like idle curiosity where I don't really care if it turns out to be wrong, or where I only have to get the broad gist of something.

But it's not a scholarly source, and it can't take the place of the many good, useful institutions that peer-reviewed scholarship has built. I've looked at plenty of pages with significant falsehoods that would be hard to detect if you don't know the field (eg some of the pages on Greek history get the names of the major players confused, so the chronology of event is incorrect). If you're in a position where you need to get it right about a subject, you can't rely on it. You need research skills, you need background knowledge built up from study over the years. So - love it for what it's good for, but don't think it's a replacement for the other stuff.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:50 AM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


But it's not a scholarly source, and it can't take the place of the many good, useful institutions that peer-reviewed scholarship has built. I've looked at plenty of pages with significant falsehoods that would be hard to detect if you don't know the field (eg some of the pages on Greek history get the names of the major players confused, so the chronology of event is incorrect). If you're in a position where you need to get it right about a subject, you can't rely on it. You need research skills, you need background knowledge built up from study over the years.

This is a good argument for getting MORE deeply-studied scholars in subjects involved in Wikipedia.
posted by hippybear at 12:12 PM on September 4, 2009


Wikipedia's all right, but I don't find it as useful as Encyclopedia Dramatica
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:47 PM on September 4, 2009


I haven't edited regularly for about two years due to a family health crisis, so I'm not sure why I'm defending Wikipedia here. Maybe I'm just explaining it.

Look, if you make a grammatical correction, even as an unregistered user, I can't imagine why anyone would willfully and capriciously revert you. Maybe they just thought it sounded better. In some cases you may be running afoul of an actual style guideline, though. If this happens to you, go to the Talk page of the editor who reverted you and ask them why. It's not hard. They are individuals, after all, not this "Hive Mind" image. Even the vaunted Wikipedia rule-by-consensus is rarely so cut and dried. It would be better if you didn't think of reverting as ending a conversation, but starting one.

I guess an example I have is when I used the word "extant" to refer to a structure still standing, the way all preservation professionals do. Except that somebody thought it meant "extinct" and changed it. It ended up being hashed out on the Talk page that none of the other editors knew the term and thought "remaining" sounded and communicated the point better, so that's what ended up sticking. I'd rather use the technical term, but if people don't know it both readers and editors will be confused.

smoke, you have to understand that at least originally the term "deletionist" was tongue-in-cheek. It's just a matter of where you tilt on the scale. In one direction, you're inclusionist -- keep articles unless you have a good reason not to. In the other, you're deletionist -- get rid of them unless their existence can be justified. Broadly, it means you think Wikipedia is better with fewer articles that are good than with more articles that are bad. That's a fair position to take. It can manifest itself in many levels of zealousness, though.

I tend to agree that the awkward "In popular culture" sections -- sometimes whole articles -- are often hard to justify. It often seems obvious that, say, Princess Leia's slave costume appearing in a Friends episode is pretty significant, but drawing the line is tricky. Mostly I would agree that a lot of it is cruft. I tried to get some mileage out of moving it all to an orthogonal Wikia, but nobody else seemed to like that at all. (Actually, I'd like a more Digg-like way of voting up the "important" things, anyway.) Feel free to keep trimming those, especially anything without proper sources.

George_Spiggot, sources are a proven way to shut up a deletionist. Sure, interesting to you vs. interesting to another editor is an unresolvable debate, but interesting to The New York Times is another thing entirely. I used to just lurk on and work on Articles for Deletion because it was amazing to me how often I could save an article with two minutes of work adding sources -- even tricky stuff that influential editors hated, like santorum.

Now, here's where you could say I buy into the MMORPG aspect. This was like slaying dragons for me.

And yes, as mdevore notes, even experienced editors lose once in a while. But I took part of the challenge as writing and sourcing my changes so that they would be less likely to fall victim to caprice.

nax, your problem was probably using a brute-force approach. "This article is wrong, we're right, so we're changing it." If you'd quietly sourced the article to third party publications, you wouldn't have been reverted. Even once editor affiliation became an issue, it's still possible to dispute falsehoods on the Talk page or a Noticeboard, or to raise a Neutral Point of View review. Wikipedia is very sensitive to being used as a PR machine for celebrities, companies, and organizations.

Look, I would never say Wikipedia is perfect, but in many ways its flaws are what make it interesting to me. I will reiterate as in the past that if anyone has any issue with the site in general or an article, me-mail me and I will happily advise you. Just this week this twitter post was getting retweeted. It turned out he was right -- the chart he saw was bogus. I tagged the file and made a note on the Talk pages and within hours another editor had simply nominated the chart for deletion. The way I view that, the system works, but I can see how it just deepens others' suspicions because "somehow" that was not caught for a year.
posted by dhartung at 1:40 PM on September 4, 2009 [3 favorites]


I like Wikipedia becaus it's broken in better ways than a lot of mainstream reference sources are broken. I don't believe you can get anything that's not broken in some way.

And, like many other internet things, it's a great rorschach test. "So what do you think about Wikipedia" is a great way to start a conversation in a room full of librarians.
posted by jessamyn at 1:59 PM on September 4, 2009


I was involved in one of the more notorious Wikipedia dustups, the Jossi Fresco / Prem Rawat (aka Guru Maharaji Ji) controversy. I read about it here in the Blue, couldn't believe an insider pwned a page so effectively and went to check it out.

It was basically true. Rawat's people, especially Fresco, effectively controlled various Rawat pages and shifted them ridiculously in the (sort-of-ex) guru's favor. But they were able to do this only through massive effort, including 3 users who appeared to be assigned full-time to monitoring the pages, plus literally years of work by Fresco insinuating himself into the culture, by helping on thousands of other pages diligently and ably to build credibility.

Dude was very, very shrewd. A few of us devoted serious time to fixing the situation, which was tough because devotees with a strong personal motivation are hard to outlast. It took a couple of years and two hearings (1, 2) before the Arbitration Committee (Wikiville's Supreme Court), but it's basically all better now.
Conclusion: it's messy and imperfect but ultimately very robust. And anyone can, in fact, make a difference.
posted by msalt at 3:06 PM on September 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another nice thing about Wikipedia is that if anyone really believes that they have an innovative way that would make it all work better they can just create their own encyclopedia web site based on it; because it's all free content and the software is free anyone can just copy the whole thing and make their own site where they're the admin (or admins, if it's a group of people). The whole project can be branched just like with an open source software project. But unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) to my knowledge it's only SEO spammers who have done this so far.
posted by XMLicious at 7:40 AM on September 5, 2009


So, this faculty member I know hates wikipedia with a passion. Refuses to use it to look anything up. If he wants to know something, he says, he'll check out the Encyclopedia Britannica online.

But this one time, he had to introduce several fairly distinguished scientists at a conference. Most of them had their full CVs (curriculum vitae) posted somewhere online, so he could figure out their honors and introduce them appropriately. But not this one guy. While a famous scientist, for some reason it was virtually impossible to figure out what awards he had or hadn't won. So, against his better judgment, this faculty member turns to wikipedia. In wikipedia, he found that the elusive scientist was in fact a member of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom - or something like that, I can't recall exactly. So, the conference came and this faculty member introduced everyone, no problem. Only afterward, the scientist in question approached the faculty member to let him know, in no uncertain terms, the he was not a member of said society, and to not make the mistake of mentioning him as such again.

Needless to say the faculty member was quite embarrassed and resolved to never use wikipedia again. Ever.
posted by scrutiny at 7:29 AM on September 8, 2009


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacturing_in_the_United_States

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sailor_moon
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:37 PM on September 8, 2009


Anecdata!
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:38 PM on September 8, 2009


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