Unfriendly Wikipedia

November 25, 2011

Interesting write up—almost a polemic–about Wikipedia as a closed resource. The notion of free and open once again collides with donations and sort of open. Which path is correct? “The Closed, Unfriendly World Of Wikipedia” raised a point I had not considered—a free, user-generated encyclopedia as “unfriendly”.

“Unfriendly”, in this case, does not mean a lousy interface. Wikipedia is dowdy and Sergey Brin plopped down $500,000 to keep the encyclopedia alive. The timing was interesting. Google slit the throat of Knol in its effort trim the ad supported airship, USS Google. Such paradoxes are not unknown in the world of encyclopedia making.

My partner Chris Kitze suggested this type of encyclopedia in 1993. After some discussion, we came up with a Web site review and classification service called The Point. Let’s see. That was 18 years ago. Encyclopedias are either the work of a slightly demented writer (maybe Denis Diederot?) or folks who have horses with hobbies to ride, marketers disguised as experts, or Kentucky students with a penchant for fabrication. We ultimately rejected the idea of a user supported encyclopedia as requiring lots of fiddling to get the content in, reviewed, and updated. Wise decision or dumb decision? We thought it was a wise one.

I worked for a while as an advisor to K. Wayne Smith, formerly an aide to Henry Kissinger, a general, and the top dog at World Book Encyclopedia. I recall his grimacing when I asked about the economics of an encyclopedia. He did not say anything. I do remember the grimace. Tough business still, so wacky user supported services are what seem to be one way forward. By definition, these services are slightly wacky. See my reference to the interesting M. Diderot.

Now let us look at the key point in the “unfriendly” write up::

It’s insane. It really is. And with respect to the many hardworking people who have created a generally useful resource, it’s not a friendly resource. It doesn’t have systems, as far as I can tell, designed to help it improve. It has walls, walls you believe (with many good reasons) are designed to protect it from being vandalized. But those walls themselves are their own type of vandalization of the very resource you’re trying to protect…Bottom line — I’ve gotten no indication that anyone at Wikipedia actually cares what a subject expert has to say on, well, a subject they’re an expert in. Instead, you drown in a morass of bureaucracy. It shouldn’t be this way.

My view is a somewhat different.

First, what happened to Know. I thought it obviated these Wiki-esque methods? Oh, Knol is a gone goose. Question: Why did not Knol, assisted by “real” experts not survive? I don’t have an answer, but if Knol is a gone goose and we have the “unfriendly” Wikipedia, isn’t the market telling me something?

Second, encyclopedias have been a tough nut to crack. These compilations require a Samuel Johnson or enormous sums of money. The revenue from print encyclopedias had as much to do with the books on a shelf as with reading their contents. The set of reference books helped prove that a family valued education, learning, or a pretense thereto. Today, what have we got, an iPad and a flat panel TV?

Third, I find solace in Cervantes’ The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. One idea is that a rational man does veer into interesting behaviors. I won’t bring up the windmill thing. Trying to create a system which prevents a free, user supported encyclopedia from becoming a warehouse of misinformation, marketing baloney, and worse is difficult.

Encyclopedia have been reinvented. The new reference service is a mobile phone which tells you what an algorithm wants you to know. If you visit a Web page, chances are that you will experience low precision and low recall content. The reason? Search engine optimization, slick and smarmy “experts”, and outright disinformation either for mercantile ends or for socio-political ends.

I am okay with the windmill joust. But no encyclopedia in a traditional or slightly modernized form can deliver problem free content in the age of mobile and filtered, ad supported search. Governance is a fancy word that does little to cover the wrinkles and warts of editorial policy.

Stephen E Arnold, November 30, 2011

Sponsored by Pandia.com


One Response to “Unfriendly Wikipedia”

  1. Jason on November 25th, 2011 9:49 am

    His main complains seem to be that he was too pissed off to read any of the guidelines/articles he was actually pointed to:

    • The article page helpfully links to the deletion discussion in the log (right on the main article page)
    • The deletion discussion page (which he was able to find) links to the deletion review. He ignored the guidelines and decided to do explicitly do what it says, in bold red letters no less, not to do by editing the deletion discussion page.
    • He didn’t bother reading http://enwp.org/WP:Deletion_review because it says plainly “Deletion review (DRV) considers disputed deletions and disputed decisions made in deletion-related discussions and speedy deletions. This includes appeals to restore deleted pages and appeals to delete pages kept after a prior discussion.”
    • He clicked the wrong link in the email. He apparently doesn’t understand the difference between a page that shows “all changes since your last visit” and “the current revision.”
    • Apparently the big “TALK” link up top (and in that user’s helpful userpage notice) is confusing for him. Of course, he crops that part out at the top.

    Overall, he comes off a petulant child who, because he was already pissed off, decided to act irrationally and vindictively and ended up making things harder on himself in the long run.

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