13 thinkers on 10 years of Wikipedia
January 17, 2011 4:23 PM   Subscribe

The way different people respond to Wikipedia may tell us more about them (or ourselves as we react) than it does about The Opus itself. Oh well, when you're rowing a boat, you're always looking at where you've been. At any rate, Atlantic has posted a nice selection of opinions on a worthy, controversial subject by mostly recognizable names.
posted by Twang (74 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm just happy for the mention of Dr. William Chester Minor. I'd red his story as a kid in a book of Paul Harvey pieces and never knew anyone else who'd heard that the OED was largely put together by a convicted murderer before. Now I know I wasn't crazy/lied to.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:31 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, a bunch of articles about how wikipedia is so super also got me all pissed off about the subject, since these days all the fun bits where you get to create stuff are over and what's left basically a bureaucratic ARG populated by deletionist scumbags who get their kicks from rules-lawyering and griefing, but Jonathan Lethem is so over-the-top grumpy that I actually end up wanting to defend it, flaws and all.
posted by Artw at 4:32 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Some negative grumpy-old people-comments, some overly-gushing ones, and some in-between ones. Almost seems like a metaphor for... Wikapedia?
posted by greenhornet at 4:37 PM on January 17, 2011


And then I go back to this, where Jimmy Wales tells us that he thinks Wikipedias biggest problem is that Wiki code is too complex. Um, no, thousands of people picked it up in no time at all. They were enthused and delighted at how easy it was to do stuff on Wikipedia. The biggest problem is the entrenched culture of jerks who will endlessly revert any latecomers who want to join in, and point them at obscure sub-points in the endless fields of gibberish rules as justification.
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on January 17, 2011 [34 favorites]


Wikipedia could go away tomorrow and I wouldn't miss it. What's that say about me?

I used to think it was cool. Now I have little opinion on it.

Vandals, misinformation, and the stuff Artw mentions all make wikipedia pretty meh in my book. What they really need is a $5 account and some moderators (and no anonymous edits).
posted by cjorgensen at 4:37 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Flaws and all, the single greatest contribution to public education in history.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:41 PM on January 17, 2011 [31 favorites]


To be fair the stuff that irritates me the most pretty much grew up as a response to the stuff that irritates everybody else - the vandalism and misinformation. The jerk who deletes your fresh new article because it's "not notable" is the same person you is trying to tackle XKCD's wood in popular culture problem. It's an immune system, of sorts, but an extremely overactive one.
posted by Artw at 4:42 PM on January 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


I remember my Grade 9 History teacher telling me that anything in an Encyclopedia published post 1920 was suspect in and he wouldn't accept it as standalone source material. And then he followed with, "But they usually get the dates and the spellings right, so they're good for that."

Same as it ever was.
posted by philip-random at 4:43 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


...and point them at obscure sub-points in the endless fields of gibberish rules as justification.

Many such rules which are in conflict with themselves.

Wikipedia has such a credibility problem that anyone writing for accuracy can't use it. I hear the argument, "It's a great place to start, but you have to verify." Or you can start someplace where you can be fairly certain to get accurate information.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:44 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, that's secondary sources in general, not just community driven ones.
posted by Artw at 4:47 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Or you can start someplace where you can be fairly certain to get accurate information.

Such as where? Wikipedia creates a bare-bones story with links for one to then go through to verify things or learn more. Of course it wouldn't be an acceptable cite for a research paper, but for the dozens of times I use it throughout the day for other things, it's so great that I can't believe there was a part of my life when I didn't have it.
posted by Navelgazer at 4:48 PM on January 17, 2011 [13 favorites]


Wikipedia – an unplanned miracle
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


On the 2006 Encyclopedia Americana:
Check out*, for example, the disgraceful entry on “Television” in the 2006 Encyclopedia Americana, which seems to have been last updated in the early 1970s. It contains statements that are now flatly false (“Since then, every attempt to establish a fourth national commercial network has met with failure.”) and many more that are now ludicrously out of date (“By 1970 more than 60% of the TV sets in the United States were equipped to receive UHF signals;’” “For a series such as Star Trek or Ironside or Mission: Impossible…”).

The nearby entry on “Telephone” is possibly even worse. (East Germany, the U.S.S.R., and Yugoslavia live on in a chart of countries that had 1 million or more telephones as of 1979.) New entries are added (there is a decent but rather short article on “Internet”), but it seems many old ones are left untouched.
(via)

There are things Wikipedia does well.
posted by danb at 4:53 PM on January 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


You can't be certain of getting accurate information anywhere. The guarantees Wikipedia offers are accessibility and links. I dare anywhere here to go a week without it. I know I couldn't.
posted by DU at 4:54 PM on January 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


I often read people saying that wikipedia can't be trusted and I feel like I must be really thick.

When I go to the wikipedia pages of subjects I know well: either it confirms what I already have picked up from my reading or it points me towards a few links where I can learn something new to me.
posted by selton at 5:01 PM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


Flaws and all, the single greatest contribution to public education in history.

I'm agreeing so hard it hurts. Of course it's not perfect, but when in the history of humanity has there ever been a resource as complete and accessible as Wikipedia? I'm thankful for it every day and I'm astounded that anyone would have the balls to only see the imperfections of it. It's a great thing - end of story.
posted by davebush at 5:06 PM on January 17, 2011 [12 favorites]


Well, it can't be trsusted to the degree that you probably shouldn't cite it in, say, and academic work or a legal case* or somesuch. For day to day stuff it's generally pretty solid.

Oh, and occasionally some joker will use it to push their own POV stuff.

Outright flasehoods in non-obscure subjects are pretty rare these days.

* Though people have.
posted by Artw at 5:06 PM on January 17, 2011


these days all the fun bits where you get to create stuff are over and what's left basically a bureaucratic ARG populated by deletionist scumbags who get their kicks from rules-lawyering and griefing

I went to my local ten-year-anniversary Wikipedia meetup on Saturday, because I've been editing for nine years and why not go. I talked to an editor who codes useful tools to help automate tedious minor editing tasks (fixing broken links etc.), an editor who finds obscure but notable/interesting topics with no articles yet and writes complete high-quality articles for them, and an editor who finds half-accurate and unsourced articles on interesting topics and revises them into reasonable shape (me).

We have a lot of fun. But editing Wikipedia is real work. It takes dedicated time and effort to learn how to edit effectively and productively, and most people have real jobs they should probably be working on instead (or friends they should be hanging out with). A lot of encyclopedia-making is done by people who are underemployed and/or kinda weird.

It's just gotten harder over time; back in the day I could wander around and find things that a 14-year-old kid knew how to do, like writing a basic article about the instrument I played or deleting blatant opinions from articles. But now, after years of people fixing the obvious stuff, you have to find something wrong or incomplete, do research on Google News and Books, decipher complex syntax, shuffle through revisions to find where mistakes originated to find the extent of the damage, scour Flickr for good-quality photos with a compatible license, decide on what the best truth is for explaining a subject in one sentence, and argue your reasons with other people who also believe they are doing the right thing.

It's deeply fun, and over the years it basically taught me how to write and edit, but there's a huge learning curve before you get to the fun part. See also: I like playing Nethack and have won it a couple times.

My favorite of all these opinions, the one that has stuck with me since I read it a couple days ago, is Yochai Benkler's observation of "a vision of practical utopia":
...the biggest gift Wikipedia has given us [is] a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes. It turns out that we are creative, social beings; we do what we think is fun, not only what is profitable; we do what we think is right and good, not only what we think advances our interests; and we are able to organize ourselves, even at very large scales, into coherent social enterprises. It's not easy; but it is possible, and it is part of who we are and can be.
Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's pretty damn great. If every kid grew up learning to edit it as well as read it, we'd have a world of much better critical thinkers. I'm glad that the bureaucracy seems to be spending a little more effort on helping educators include editing in their lessons. Not as easy as it once was, but there's still a lot left to do.
posted by dreamyshade at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2011 [109 favorites]


Well, yeah, the feeling that I was constantly losing fights to weirdos with far more time to waste online than myself would be another reason I don't edit so much these days. I mean, I waste a fair bit of time on the internets, as many of you probably know, but compared with those guys it's *nothing*.
posted by Artw at 6:01 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


For day to day stuff it's generally pretty solid.

I spend a lot of my days being day-to-day.
posted by DU at 6:14 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Wikipedia is invaluable. The other day I was looking for a list of fictional racoons. I found that but was unsure about the validity of it but I asked some of the animals with degrees and was reassured.

Wikipedia is a fantastic resource though. The myriad of general collections of figures on things (GDP etc) is stunning, the articles on so many technical things are excellent and even if there are problems with controversial subjects it's still a great site.
posted by sien at 6:17 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sigh, I really want to believe in the power of crowdsourcing and collaborative editing on Wikipedia. Then I go back and take a look at the Detroit article. It's just a giant PR piece, mainly maintained by one Thomas Paine1776. This can be seen in the talk archives for the page.

Normal people can't keep up with the resources of a PR firm or other consultancy group in editing pages on the site.
posted by formless at 6:25 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Normal people can't keep up with the resources of a PR firm or other consultancy group in editing pages on the site.

I think this is certainly true. There are also a tremendous amount of misinformation on Wikipedia, and subtle vandalism, etc. But as a resource for where to start on researching almost any subject, it's unparalleled. It also seems to me that there are very few pages overall that are actively being edited to promote a specific user's world view or by a PR firm to "shape" the message about a product, etc. And if you find something wrong on a page, you can at least try to make a difference by editing it.

Wikipedia isn't perfect, but it can be very useful. That's all I'm looking for, personally.
posted by gemmy at 6:44 PM on January 17, 2011


One of my favourite essays on Wikipedia is this one from a few years ago by a UBC professor who decided that instead of having students write traditional papers for assignments, they should instead create featured articles on Wikipedia.
posted by Staggering Jack at 6:47 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


That is literally the second time in two days that I've read a complaint on metafilter about ThomasPaine1776. What is with this person?
posted by Navelgazer at 6:50 PM on January 17, 2011


and now looking into it I see that formless has mentioned him twice, but here's the other mention I was thinking of.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:52 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really like it as a tool for self-directed learning. I like to look up stuff that I know a little about and expand on that. Yesterday I discovered, for the first time, that for about a decade, there was a Federal Republic of Central America.

One way I like to explore is to do a Google search on a term limiting the site to Wikipedia. Another way I like even more is to click on the coordinates of a place and then go to Google maps. Zoom out a little (or a lot) and then turn on the Wikipedia option; you'll usually see dozens (or hundreds) of other WP articles about a region. Think you know your State pretty well? If it doesn't surprise you, I'd be surprised.

To compare WP to a book is to miss most of the point entirely: it's far more, in being up to date, in instant connectivity via SEE ALSO links to related articles, in exploring broad subject options to any depth you choose.

If I'd had WP when I was a teen, it would have completely changed my life. Because I'd have gone to college with a much broader knowledge about the wide world than I could ever have gotten from the Britannica at the school or library. To ask for specialist-topic specificity is to miss the elephant for the flea.
posted by Twang at 7:08 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


One of the most amusing edits I see is when someone the replaces the period at the end of a randomly chosen sentence with a comma, and append whatever it is they want to say as an additional clause,and steam engine were commonly used as a replacement for windmills.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:24 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


Detroit done got redactified.
posted by clavdivs at 7:28 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Twang - With the Australian version of Google Maps, we don't even get the Wikipedia option.. Oh wait, we do. Huh. But look, there's only three items marked in my suburb, so I don't see how.. Huh, the school across the road used to be a mental asylum. I did not know that. Bugger me.

The thing I like most about Wikipedia (and MeFi and the Internet) is how often it proves me wrong. I'd say about twice a day (citation needed).
posted by notionoriety at 7:28 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like wikipedia, but gave up trying to contribute ages ago for artw's reasons. It's pretty good, in some instances great, but with stuff like the Detroit article and (I recall) whitewashing of bios of people involved, etc., it just means you cannot absolutely trust it. Maybe that's OK.

Also, apparently only white men (with a token exception or two) think about wikipedia.
posted by maxwelton at 8:38 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The most revealing thing about all those mini-essays is the split between the information consumer's view of Wikipedia and the view of people who've seriously tried to contribute to it. Lethem's piece is a bit thin on argument and long on whine, but it's still grounded in an account of the major process problems that are entrenched in Wikipedia as a community of editors; this is a view that most of the Atlantic contributors (and many commenters here) don't have, or don't want to have, in arguing that Wikipedia is great for readers.

(There are big problems with the "it's a great starting place for uninformed readers, we can check the footnotes later" argument, too: among the biggest problems with Wikipedia's collaborative writing process is all the misplaced and disproportionate emphasis it creates in summaries of broad topics, which is one of the hardest things for a non-expert reader to spot. And the emphasis on "links," rather than sources, that this thread evinces, is also one of Wikipedia's worst and most childish lingering cultural biases; print material and library research in writing articles are persistently devalued in favor of far, far worse electronic sources.)

To use a home-turf analogy, this is like talking about Ask Metafilter as a resource for readers who find old questions via Google — a fair point, but nothing to do with the community and the process of moderation and discussion of contributions that make it such a resource and define its limits and problems. Even talking about Wikipedia as a functional collaborative process merely because it provides edit histories is an irredeemably naive, outsider's viewpoint on the place; I always want to ask these writers to come back and tell us what they think once they've had their well-sourced articles on topics of their expertise deleted on a footnoting technicality, or rewritten by a functional illiterate who then revert-wars over it for the next six months, or distorted by the dutifully bad-citation-backed additions of an ill-informed crank.

It seems to me like the most perceptive commentators on Wikipedia these days are nearly all former contributors, or at least continuing contributors whose initial utopian optimism for the project has been worn down by years of grinding rules-lawyering into a more realistic perspective on both what makes it work as a content farm and what makes it untenable as a project to create and maintain really good, serious writing. This may surely be confirmation bias, since I've abandoned it after years of contributing, but none of the Wikioptimists' arguments seems to be new these last few years; they all hinge on "look what a great list of Pokemon this is" and ignore the endless debates and policy-lawyering time-sinks and expert retention problems and tribalism that seem like defining features of Wikipedia as a community of users. It goes much deeper than just this, which is a general free-stuff-on-the-Internet problem:

most people have real jobs they should probably be working on instead (or friends they should be hanging out with). A lot of encyclopedia-making is done by people who are underemployed and/or kinda weird.

The problem is that the time commitment it takes to get good material into Wikipedia isn't predictable or fixed; it's not just the time it takes to research and write a contribution that keep it there, it's the functionally infinite commitment to maintaining and defending it. The general, topically uninformed, vandalism patrollers are great at fixing "[article subject] is teh gayz0rz!!!1!" vandalism, and completely shit at fixing virtually anything subtler. What's worse, the best-informed and best-written material demonstrably loses out a lot of the time, especially when the difference between competing versions is above a high-school level of literacy or requires any specialized knowledge. Contributing is fun if you don't care what happens after you contribute; trying to maintain an article at or above the quality you left it is a hair-pullingly frustrating, endless, lifelong series of snitty fights. And the Wikipedia house style of argumentation — no insults, please! WP:AGF! — tends so far toward the passive-aggressive rules-lawyers who have hours to post wall-of-text replies to every minor point that it's no wonder sane people often choose to give the hell up and move on no matter how committed they are to the project, the article, or the topic.
posted by RogerB at 8:50 PM on January 17, 2011 [13 favorites]


Wikipedia has articles on famous people, like our own Mathowie. even the two true sayings, when you're rowing a boat, you're always looking at where you've been, and if you are not the lead dog, the view never changes. Thanks for those mind stimulating thoughts Wikipedia.
posted by tustinrick at 8:50 PM on January 17, 2011


Also, apparently only white men (with a token exception or two) think about wikipedia.

I wonder about this - I strongly suspect that the demographic of the majority of wikipedia editors is severely limited, which raises serious questions about the information hegemony that wikipedia embodies. For me, I realized a while back that most of wikipedia was written by people who view the internet as their primary interface with the world (I count myself in that number), with all of the implicit value judgements and bias. I don't know that this necessarily is a bad thing, but I still have an uneasy feeling thinking about it.
posted by ianhattwick at 9:08 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


RogerB, without disagreeing with virtually anything you wrote, I would be hesitant to limit those woes exclusively to wikipedia. Many of those problems crop up (in a smaller scale) in olde worlde publishing, and they are certainly endemic to all democracies or systems that aspire to democracy. It's possible to both recognise these limitations or challenges, and also celebrate what is achieved in spite of them. The least worst system, if you will.

In this respect, the framework of wikipedia could be compared to the articles you shake your head over. Finishing is impossible ; only endless con/de/re-struction; not necessarily a bad thing, unless you're expecting something else. Indeed, I find the glorious Borgesian qualities of wikipedia amongst its most endearing.
posted by smoke at 9:26 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The debate about expertise has interesting limitations: on one side, you have the traditionalists, who argue that expertise needs to be certified by some sort of official body, a set of institutions that act as gatekeepers over what counts as knowledge. On the other, the Wikipedians who argue that peer review plus software can take over this role. The Wikipedians are right, at least up to the point of being able to replicate a Britannica level of quality, but because they're right, Wikipedia isn't genuinely transformative.

The debate over whether we need institutions to certify knowledge matters because institutions are understood to concentrate power and create an elite class. Getting rid of the institutions is assumed to be more democratic, but is it? 500 Wikipedia editors make 75% of the edits, which at least to me, is a serious concentration of power. Like most internet participation projects, Wikipedia exhibits power-law distributions, which is another way of saying "winner takes all".

Far from being more democratic, participation on the internet intensifies inequality, exclusion and concentrations of power in general, and it's only transformative in the sense that power changes hands - in this instance, from the Britannica editors to Wikipedia editors. This is ensured because the design of Wikipedia draws from norms and practices of software development - articles are written in a kind of code, they don't have explicit owners, there are diffs and versioning, etc. Wikis are modeled on source control software, and this implicitly privileges software developers who already understand these tools and discourages people who don't.

Obviously Jimmy Wales is aware of these problems when he says that wiki markup needs to be simpler, but the more significant fact is that they are problems of institutions concentrating power into the hands of an elite and creating exclusions, which is what the ideology of participation and openness, in it's more Utopian variants, promised to overcome. In this sense, Wikipedia is a success because lots of people visit, but a failure because it couldn't overcome the problem of institutional power.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:43 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


The biggest problem is the entrenched culture of jerks who will endlessly revert any latecomers who want to join in, and point them at obscure sub-points in the endless fields of gibberish rules as justification.

Perhaps. Count me an outlier case, but I picked up the rudiments of the culture "in no time at all" and quickly realized that the way to improving Wikipedia was adding sourced material, and the key to preventing deletionism was to create undeleteable articles (i.e. well-sourced). In many ways this is a different pursuit from those who try to create information-chocked niche articles or articles with admirable prose or articles that win featured status, but I found it quite satisfying to spend my time doing for two to three years (until real life priorities won out). I can see why the culture can be overwhelmingly frustrating at the earliest stage, preventing many people from moving beyond drive-by editing to regular IP-only editing or from IP-only editing to username editing, but I don't see why anyone who reaches the username stage should be unable to navigate the basics of the culture and find ways to contribute. Granted, I made a very strategic decision to avoid 90% of the content fights that drag people into the bureaucracy, but I found a way to make it work for me. I just don't get why someone with more than cursory experience can't realize that the culture is in many ways necessary and inevitable given the structure, and that "deletionist" is just one side of the coin whose obverse is "inclusionist", and that coin is the currency of making Wikipedia better.

So maybe there's no room for List of foods that have appeared in _The Simpsons_, but there damn well is room for santorum, which is one of the fights I was happy to get dragged into and which I'm very pleased to say I won (a good majority of that article is my words and sources). If I can do that I don't see why anyone else can't manage to get something that meets the basic criteria of having solid third-party sources into the project.
posted by dhartung at 10:33 PM on January 17, 2011 [8 favorites]


I use Wikipedia fairly frequently (the two most frequent use cases are from my phone to settle bets on obscure topics, and as a replacement for the increasingly-sucky IMDB), and I'm glad that it exists. The world is a better place for its existence; stipulated.

However, what really pains me is that it has so much potential to be more than what it is, and the culture and the ridiculous policies and the ineffective leadership all conspire to keep it what it is.

When it started, taking out Encyclopedia Britannica as the best general reference on the web might have seemed like an ambitious goal. Well, that's been done -- now what?

Wikipedia's original goals, in particular the idea of being an encyclopedia (of general reference topics), as expressed in the "notability" guidelines, is holding it back. It drives me nuts to see the community behind Wikipedia, which contains so many people who know about so much, get beaten by the deletionists and the notability guidelines.

My recommendations, if I was in any position to do anything, would be to significantly expand the notability guidelines on article topics and relax the hair trigger no-original-research rule so that it doesn't prohibit subject matter experts from commenting, particularly on topics where little extant written material or formal knowledge exists.

Would this decrease quality, taken as some sort of an average over all articles? Sure, but that's a stupid metric (and an unmeasurable one at that). Marginal articles at the periphery hardly matter since they're rarely accessed; my guess is that quality and number of eyeballs tend to be proportional. If quality is really a concern, then the solution is to either select out articles that are known to be high-quality (or have even been professionally reviewed or fact-checked) into a separate area, highlight/tag them perhaps, or let someone put them into another project entirely if there's a demand for a more dependably accurate version of WP.

Wikipedia's biggest asset -- I'd argue it's basically a non-renewable resource that it's burning through at this point -- is its community, and it makes sense to harness that to the fullest extent possible. The current model squanders much of what the community could add to the project in order to maintain perceived "quality," when it could layer the quality-assurance that the deletionists seem to be so obsessed with on top of an inclusionist base, and we'd be well on our way to something far beyond just being an encyclopedia.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:36 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Many of those problems crop up (in a smaller scale) in olde worlde publishing, and they are certainly endemic to all democracies or systems that aspire to democracy.

Right, but WP:NOT#DEMOCRACY. Wikipedia is meant to be run as a meritocracy — by assessing the merit and quality of contributions, that is, regardless of their source — and at that goal it sometimes fails, as I was saying (often in certain cases, such as superficially "helpful" and sourced but ill-founded or distorted additions to articles on obscure topics). This is not to claim that traditional publishing and editing recognize good writing and improve it, either, in every case, nor that traditional scholarship always succeeds at giving a broad overview of a topic without distorting it, but I'd say that (on the subjects I know well, at least) Wikipedia has a long way to go before it remotely approaches the quality of writing and thinking in an average introductory college textbook; and perhaps it never will.

At any rate the very best material on Wikipedia (that I've seen, anyhow), the few bits that approach the quality of good "traditionally published" introductory material, has not been written in anything like the Net-utopian collaboration of anonymous hordes, but rather contributed in at least full paragraphs by very good writers, at most footnote-tweaked by others, and afterward defended wholesale against nearly all changes, since they almost invariably degrade it. (That articles can get much worse, rather than better, over time is another thing Wikioptimists spend much too little time thinking about; they tend to imagine that the edit history can cure all, when it's always, of necessity, nearly unread.)
posted by RogerB at 11:00 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


A few months ago on a whim I rewrote the introduction to the article on World War II, streamlining it and adding references to the Holocaust, the first use of nuclear weapons in warfare, and the aftermath that was the United Nations, the Cold War and the economic expansion/political integration of Europe. Nearly a year later, and all that information is intact (albeit rejiggered around a bit, which is to be expected for such a high-traffic article).

I'm hardly a Wikipedian; I've only made about a hundred edits to my name, most of them minor, and the editing policy is as byzantine to me as anyone else. But it's still possible to make significant, lasting changes to even the most important topics as long as your information is sound and your intentions are good.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:02 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]


Well, yeah, the feeling that I was constantly losing fights to weirdos with far more time to waste online than myself would be another reason I don't edit so much these days.

Yeah; looking at the Talk pages for some topics (anything to do with Poland and Jews, Eric Raymond, etc, etc) shows the degree to which a fanatical obsession can simply skew things.
posted by rodgerd at 11:08 PM on January 17, 2011


Contributing is fun if you don't care what happens after you contribute; trying to maintain an article at or above the quality you left it is a hair-pullingly frustrating, endless, lifelong series of snitty fights.

Yeah, in my case I am able to like editing Wikipedia because my style is to work on minor topics with low-stress maintenance (some polite removal of badly-sourced additions, only the occasional tedious debate), not on central or controversial articles. I wouldn't touch the core topics. Reminds me of what people call the Dunning–Kruger effect, where a person who knows and respects a subject can easily be outmatched in effort and dedication by a less-knowledgable editor. (Uh, I reached for a Wikipedia link there by default. Oh well, it's still a more useful introductory/background link than the other single pages on the topic that I can find.)

I strongly suspect that the demographic of the majority of wikipedia editors is severely limited...I realized a while back that most of wikipedia was written by people who view the internet as their primary interface with the world

Very much so, and Wikipedia calls this its systemic bias. There are a bunch of editors who make a focused effort to counter the systemic bias, but it's still, well, a systemic bias and a problem.
posted by dreamyshade at 11:10 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia is OK, but it's no Encyclopedia Dramatica.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:57 AM on January 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


This is so timely for me, these past few days I've been watching a tiny wiki-vendetta going on where a clever lad deleted all the reference links, then flagged all the articles that were created by specific user as lacking sources - I had one of these on my watchlist (purely for egoboost reasons, it was about my site), so I noticed all the sudden edits. At least five different people attempting to straighten out the articles were naturally accused of being sockpuppets for doing so. From the looks of it, all articles created by that guy are all up for deletion right now. I showed a few friends the action and they shared stories of having every article and every edit they ever created with their users similarly hunted down. I've heard about it, but never actually seen it happen before and was really surprised to see it in action.

At the same time, if I want to know what Simpsons episode X happened in, I know exactly where to go. :)
posted by dabitch at 1:13 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm just happy for the mention of Dr. William Chester Minor. I'd red his story as a kid in a book of Paul Harvey pieces and never knew anyone else who'd heard that the OED was largely put together by a convicted murderer before. Now I know I wasn't crazy/lied to

There's a book about this, which has been very successful since it was published in 1998: The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 3:25 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to teach Music Technology at degree level. I was always in favour of students using Wikipedia as a research tool, particularly as a jumping-off point before finding more reliable sources. I'd never seen any serious factual errors in any important Wikipedia pages ... until one day a student did a presentation in which he said the history of sound recording could be traced back to a Swiss watchmaker named "believe it or not, 'Smooth Nikola'". I didn't believe it, and looked up the name later to find that it had come from this Wikipedia page (second paragraph). Searching for the name "Smooth Nikola" gives a bunch of sites parroting the wiki, and nothing else meaningful.

So either there really was a Swiss watchmaker named Smooth Nikola, that only Wikipedia knows about, or a serious (and uncited) error has remained on a fairly important Wikipedia page for several years.
posted by iotic at 4:04 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why all the hate for Wikipedia? Is it that fashionable? It is a resource of astonishingly high value, and its creation probably dwarfs the combined contributions of all its critics.

What is the first fucking sentence in this post? Ah yes

The way different people respond to Wikipedia may tell us more about them (or ourselves as we react) than it does about The Opus itself.

Its right there. We all know what Wikipedia is at this point. We all have heard the 2nd and 3rd hand stories about editor censorship that you naysayers repeat on every single fucking Wikipedia post, and for what? It all sounds like childish whining from people who do not understand the difficulty of making Wikipedia work, and can't be assed to learn.

Artw: and point them at obscure sub-points in the endless fields of gibberish rules as justification.

And you didn't fucking thank those fine volunteers for educating you? Ah, those damm rule-abiding nazis that made Wikipedia work, in spite of all the naysaying noise. You sure showed them.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 4:23 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


iotic, I've seen a few of those too. I don't edit much, I'll add a reference link here, correct a typo there, used to hang around making perfume lists (bored at work), and whenever I've removed odd unsourced things like that, it pops back within a day. Since I seldom edit, I don't have any clout at all and haven't stuck around for editingwars. I figure someone knows where it came from. In my area of expertise (yeah, advertising, sucky I know) I see masses of pages created by PR companies worded in the exact same manner as the press releases they send me. Nothing much I can do about that, unless I want to become a fulltime wikipedian and gain that famous clout.
posted by dabitch at 4:44 AM on January 18, 2011


So either there really was a Swiss watchmaker named Smooth Nikola, that only Wikipedia knows about, or a serious (and uncited) error has remained on a fairly important Wikipedia page for several years.

Looks like that's been there for almost five years. Now that I've dug up the original, I guess I should fix the article...
posted by klausness at 5:08 AM on January 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ooh, well done klausness. Please do ...
posted by iotic at 5:32 AM on January 18, 2011


OK now that was neat. klausness has clout. :)
posted by dabitch at 5:34 AM on January 18, 2011


And the emphasis on "links," rather than sources, that this thread evinces, is also one of Wikipedia's worst and most childish lingering cultural biases; print material and library research in writing articles are persistently devalued in favor of far, far worse electronic sources.

I'd say that print material and "library research" not existing on the internet is what's holding wikipedia back. I can think of at least 10 instances, right off the top of my head, where I've wanted to learn more about a topic but the only resources have been in some university library or other, or some jstor or what have you, that I didn't have the authority to access. If it's not on the internet, it's not very useful to the average person these days. Paid journals and closed systems kill casual learning.
posted by Phyltre at 5:42 AM on January 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Kadin2048: If quality is really a concern, then the solution is to either select out articles that are known to be high-quality into a separate area, highlight/tag them perhaps, or let someone put them into another project entirely if there's a demand for a more dependably accurate version of WP.

Am I imagining this, or was there not a Wikipedia/Wikimedia side-project at some point in the past few years with precisely this intention? I seem to recall a nascent attempt at creating a more stringently verified subset of Wikipedia, but I can't find any reference to it now...

posted by brightghost at 7:25 AM on January 18, 2011


Wikipedia has such a credibility problem that anyone writing for accuracy can't use it.

Which again leads to fundamental conflicts in the spirit of the thing. "Anyone can edit it" but now if you don't have a source it will probably be reverted or have "citation needed" tagged at the least. And the code to add sources isn't trivially obvious.

Wikipedia should probably fundamentally change the edit page, where any sentence you add needs a source.

(And a side issue is that a great deal of the citation links are dead links now. I tend to think you can put anything in a wiki page as long as you provide a cite link, even if its not a real link. The idea of your citation trumps the actual citation from the wikipedia perspective.)
posted by smackfu at 7:27 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Am I imagining this, or was there not a Wikipedia/Wikimedia side-project at some point in the past few years with precisely this intention?

There are featured articles. Individual sub-projects will also rate all their articles, like for politics. This is all hidden behind the scenes on the Talk pages.

There were also projects at one point to select a set of articles for a proper encyclopedia release. With the rise of internet everywhere, that doesn't seem to have much of a point since people will just use the real thing.
posted by smackfu at 7:33 AM on January 18, 2011


As an experiment I just read the current Wikipedia page on Metafilter. Looks OK. For a free resource compiled by volunteers I would say that is pretty great!
posted by bukvich at 7:47 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


And the code to add sources isn't trivially obvious.

That's definately a big problem, given that, as you say, getting anything to stick on wikipedia is increasingly cite based. That's an area where a software improvement or a simplification of wikicode might actually do some good.
posted by Artw at 8:05 AM on January 18, 2011


Am I imagining this, or was there not a Wikipedia/Wikimedia side-project at some point in the past few years with precisely this intention?

I remembered something like that too, but I couldn't find it with a quick Google when I was writing my previous comment. I thought there was some effort to take certain WP articles and then build on / fact-check them, using verified subject-matter experts in particular fields. I have a distinct recollection of reading about it on Slashdot a while back.

Maybe it never went anywhere? That would not totally surprise me, as I've always thought that the demand for a fact-checked / high-accuracy version of WP is overstated.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 AM on January 18, 2011


I am due to write a weblog post on Wikipedia's 10th anniversary, which I'm halfway done, but after years as one of the top "Wikipedia Critics", the less I hear about that thing, the better.

The resulting backlash against me when I started criticizing Wikipedia in 2004 (there's about 10 more speeches and essays out there from me), well... let's just say people inside Plato's Cave can still throw some pretty heavy and nasty rocks while they're chained down.
posted by jscott at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lethem may have oddly focused on one minute piece of Wikipedia aggravation in order to get the crankiness out, but he's got a point. Some of those fan-written summaries are pretty bad. (I like the ones that reference characters without introducing them first.)
posted by Spatch at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2011


Kadin2048: If quality is really a concern, then the solution is to either select out articles that are known to be high-quality into a separate area, highlight/tag them perhaps, or let someone put them into another project entirely if there's a demand for a more dependably accurate version of WP.

Am I imagining this, or was there not a Wikipedia/Wikimedia side-project at some point in the past few years with precisely this intention? I seem to recall a nascent attempt at creating a more stringently verified subset of Wikipedia, but I can't find any reference to it now...


You're probably thinking of the Stable Version concept^, an idea borrowed from Citizendium (or implemented first there, depending on the timeline); as I recall, watching from the sidelines, this eventually morphed into Flagged revisions, which is approaching implementation.
posted by dhartung at 9:20 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I got a personal email from Jimbo Wales once, as part of his effort to randomly pick someone and prove the credentials they listed were valid. Mine were. That was nice.

(Yep. That's all I got. Carry on.)
posted by caution live frogs at 6:45 PM on January 18, 2011


If the articles are getting worse edit-by-edit, perhaps someone should just start a new wikipedia.
posted by snofoam at 6:45 PM on January 18, 2011


I luv the Wik, in spite of its imperfect human nature.

If I'd had WP when I was a teen, it would have completely changed my life.

Yes, that is what I could say too.

I am proud of those little stubs which I have contributed in past years. I am proud that we won the battle to save The Catbus entry from deletion.

Wikipedia is the most sublime if you enjoy reading about Paleontology, but are not actually a Paleontologist yourself.
posted by ovvl at 7:01 PM on January 18, 2011


The discussion page on Catbus is pretty funny.
posted by smoke at 7:50 PM on January 18, 2011


If anyone wanted to do a solid good deed and make sure it doesn't come up for deletion again then they wouldn't go wrong finding some additional sources for the article and adding them.
posted by Artw at 8:32 PM on January 18, 2011


That would mean we could remove the ugly templates at the top, also.
posted by Artw at 8:33 PM on January 18, 2011


A few months ago on a whim I rewrote ... Nearly a year later, and all that information is intact

It's nice to find evidence of time travel at last.
posted by philipy at 11:22 AM on January 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's nice to find evidence of time travel at last.
posted by philipy


Just revert the timeline (flying around the earth not necessary). The real problem is when the deletionists show up.
posted by haveanicesummer at 12:59 PM on January 19, 2011


Why all the hate for Wikipedia? Is it that fashionable?

I'm not sure. I consult it almost every day, but still would agree with most of the criticisms in this thread. Perhaps it's something to do with what RogerB wrote about users and contributors in his excellent comment, with those between casual browsers and hardcore editors being most aware of its weaknesses. Perhaps it's a backlash to the efforts of the hugely defensive fanbase to drown out criticism.

We all have heard the 2nd and 3rd hand stories about editor censorship that you naysayers repeat on every single fucking Wikipedia post, and for what? It all sounds like childish whining from people who do not understand the difficulty of making Wikipedia work, and can't be assed to learn.

Well, my experiences are first-hand, as I assume are those of ArtW and RogerB. Leaving that aside, perhaps you're right and we're at fault for not learning the intricacies of Wikipedia bureaucracy before trying to correct inaccuracies. If that's the case (and the number of experienced contributors who have left the project suggest otherwise), then the frequent rebuffal to weaknesses of 'SoFixIt' is surely mistaken.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:05 PM on January 19, 2011


The discussion page on Catbus is pretty funny.

Thank you for that.

I've been playing the long game on Wikipedia for a while, trying to get Vermont, library and library-related pages not sucky and getting new pages written for people who meet notability requirements. I spent one winter going through the pages for every Vermont town and making sure if the town had a website, it was listed there. This sort of thing matters to Google. Whether it sohould matter so much to Google is an open and inteersting question. As someone who sort of enjoys learning a bunch of byzantine rules, I really enjoy the work I do there. Other people don't, totally fine. I do feel that the work I did there has made me [and likely others] able to make the MeFi Wiki into a better thing than it might be otherwise.

For people who are wikipedia curious, you might enjoy the book Good Faith Collaboration.
posted by jessamyn at 1:38 PM on January 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


This sort of thing matters to Google. Whether it should matter so much to Google is an open and interesting question.

Wikipedia uses nofollow on all external links — I believe this means that adding external links to Wikipedia doesn't influence their ranking in Google searches at all. Obviously, this is done in order to de-incentivize linkspam.
posted by RogerB at 2:58 PM on January 20, 2011


I believe this means that adding external links to Wikipedia doesn't influence their ranking in Google searches at all.

Good point, I mostly add links using decent terms like "Chester Vermont Official Website" which can be helpful if the town's page itself doesn't contain any useful terms, people can at least find it one click away via Google.
posted by jessamyn at 4:18 PM on January 20, 2011


Wikipedia isn't perfect but it's pretty damn great. If every kid grew up learning to edit it as well as read it, we'd have a world of much better critical thinkers.

Everytime I see this in the sideblog I misread it.

Because, well...

If every kid grew up learning to ...read... we'd have a much better world
posted by philipy at 9:21 AM on January 24, 2011


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