There’s an interesting discussion going on right now under Kim’s Wikibooks post about how an open source model might be made to work for the creation of authoritative knowledge — textbooks, encyclopedias etc. A couple of weeks ago there was some dicussion here about an article that, among other things, took some rather cheap shots at Wikipedia, quoting (very selectively) a couple of shoddy passages. Clearly, the wide-open model of Wikipedia presents some problems, but considering the advantages it presents (at least in potential) — never out of date, interconnected, universally accessible, bringing in voices from the margins — critics are wrong to dismiss it out of hand. Holding up specific passages for critique is like shooting fish in a barrel. Even Wikipedia’s directors admit that most of the content right now is of middling quality, some of it downright awful. It doesn’t then follow to say that the whole project is bunk. That’s a bit like expelling an entire kindergarten for poor spelling. Wikipedia is at an early stage of development. Things take time.
Instead we should be talking about possible directions in which it might go, and how it might be improved. Dan for one, is concerned about the market (excerpted from comments):
What I worry about…is that we’re tearing down the old hierarchies and leaving a vacuum in their wake…. The problem with this sort of vacuum, I think, is that capitalism tends to swoop in, simply because there are more resources on that side….
…I’m not entirely sure if the world of knowledge functions analogously, but Wikipedia does presume the same sort of tabula rasa. The world’s not flat: it tilts precariously if you’ve got the cash. There’s something in the back of my mind that suspects that Wikipedia’s not protected against this – it’s kind of in the state right now that the Web as a whole was in 1995 before the corporate world had discovered it. If Wikipedia follows the model of the web, capitalism will be sweeping in shortly.
Unless… the experts swoop in first. Wikipedia is part of a foundation, so it’s not exactly just bobbing in the open seas waiting to be swept away. If enough academics and librarians started knocking on the door saying, hey, we’d like to participate, then perhaps Wikipedia (and Wikibooks) would kick up to the next level. Inevitably, these newcomers would insist on setting up some new vetting mechanisms and a few useful hierarchies that would help ensure quality. What would these be? That’s exactly the kind of thing we should be discussing.
The Guardian ran a nice piece earlier this week in which they asked several “experts” to evaluate a Wikipedia article on their particular subject. They all more or less agreed that, while what’s up there is not insubstantial, there’s still a long way to go. The biggest challenge then, it seems to me, is to get these sorts of folks to give Wikipedia more than just a passing glance. To actually get them involved.
For this to really work, however, another group needs to get involved: the users. That might sound strange, since millions of people write, edit and use Wikipedia, but I would venture that most are not willing to rely on it as a bedrock source. No doubt, it’s incredibly useful to get a basic sense of a subject. Bloggers (including this one) link to it all the time — it’s like the conversational equivalent of a reference work. And for certain subjects, like computer technology and pop culture, it’s actually pretty solid. But that hits on the problem right there. Wikipedia, even at its best, has not gained the confidence of the general reader. And though the Wikimaniacs would be loathe to admit it, this probably has something to do with its core philosophy.
Karen G. Schneider, a librarian who has done a lot of thinking about these questions, puts it nicely:
Wikipedia has a tagline on its main page: “the free-content encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” That’s an intriguing revelation. What are the selling points of Wikipedia? It’s free (free is good, whether you mean no-cost or freely-accessible). That’s an idea librarians can connect with; in this country alone we’ve spent over a century connecting people with ideas.
However, the rest of the tagline demonstrates a problem with Wikipedia. Marketing this tool as a resource “anyone can edit” is a pitch oriented at its creators and maintainers, not the broader world of users. It’s the opposite of Ranganathan’s First Law, “books are for use.” Ranganathan wasn’t writing in the abstract; he was referring to a tendency in some people to fetishize the information source itself and lose sight that ultimately, information does not exist to please and amuse its creators or curators; as a common good, information can only be assessed in context of the needs of its users.
I think we are all in need of a good Wikipedia, since in the long run it might be all we’ve got. And I’m in now way opposed to its spirit of openness and transparency (I think the preservation of version histories is a fascinating element and one which should be explored further — perhaps the encyclopedia of the future can encompass multiple versions of the “the truth”). But that exhilarating throwing open of the doors should be tempered with caution and with an embrace of the parts of the old system that work. Not everything need be thrown away in our rush to explore the new. Some people know more than other people. Some editors have better judgement than others. There is such a thing as a good kind of gatekeeping.
If these two impulses could be brought into constructive dialogue then we might get somewhere. This is exactly the kind of conversation the Wikimedia Foundation should be trying to foster.