'Pedia vs. 'Pedia: Wiki Wins!

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Today in The Wall Street Journal Online, a snappy email exchange between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Britannica editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg.

Things get a little testy:

Mr. Wales: We have spoken openly about some of the challenges and difficulties we face at Wikipedia. Not long ago, you suffered some bad publicity due to errors in Britannica. Have you considered changing your model to allow quick, transparent responses to such criticisms as a way to achieve a higher quality level?

Mr. Hoiberg: I must point out that Mr. Wales's inclusion of two links in his question to me, one to Wikipedia itself, is sneaky. I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance.

Mr. Wales: Sneaky? I beg to differ. On the Internet it is possible and desirable to enhance the understanding of the reader by linking directly to resources to enhance and further understanding.

You wrote: "I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance."

No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article on the topic.

Fortunately, there is a vast army of volunteers eager to help good people like you and me who don't quite have enough time and space to do everything from scratch ourselves, and they are writing a comprehensive encyclopedic catalog of all human knowledge. They have quite eagerly amassed a fantastic list and discussion of dozens of links to such articles.

We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet. (links in original)

Read the whole thing.

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  1. Britannica: $69.95

    Wikipedia: $0

    Quality: Marginal differences in both. Accuracy rate, fairly close for facts presented.

    I’m sold on wikipedia even before hearing this exchange.

    My one compaint on wikipedia…they are often lousy at providing personal details (spouses, kids, etc.) of most current celebrities – unless the spouses or kids are newsworthy in themselves.

  2. vast army of volunteers eager to help good people like you and me who don’t quite have enough time and space to do everything from scratch ourselves, and they are writing a comprehensive encyclopedic catalog of all human knowledge.

    And what Jimmy Wales refuses to acknowledge is that there’s a vast army of fuckwads (excuse my Anglo-saxon, do have a biscuit) who are crapping up the catalog of all human knowledge.

    Wales’ response to this has been to make Wikipedia less of a wiki, and simply lock it down further and further. Irony? I’ll let you decide.

    More hands != a better product, Mr. Wales.

  3. And yet wikipedia is fundamentally a communist (the strict definition, not the red-baiting one) model of knowledge.

    I would expect that market proponents would favor the for-profit Britannica over the collective ‘pedia. The problem is, the wiki is objectively better by any measure and the EB guy is a dick, so it’s not a pleasant side to be on.

  4. Of course Wikipedia wins. Who needs facts to be verified when there’s an internet source to cite to!!

  5. And what Jimmy Wales refuses to acknowledge is that there’s a vast army of fuckwads (excuse my Anglo-saxon, do have a biscuit) who are crapping up the catalog of all human knowledge.

    No, there’s a minority of fuckwads, and for being ‘crapped up’ the catalog of all human knowledge sure is extraordinarily and frequently useful.

    Wales’ response to this has been to make Wikipedia less of a wiki, and simply lock it down further and further. Irony? I’ll let you decide.

    Eh? You just made up ‘further and further’. It started out with anti-vandalism lockouts.

    It’s fundamentally a well-understood social problem. There is a large army of well-meaning people with the common goal of improving the accuracy of the system, and a minority of dicks who have opted out of the well-meaningness either for their own gain or to amuse themselves.

    The wikipedia approach is to assume openness as a default, which is correct, and to build in a system to manage the deviants, which is correct. The implementation of that system doesn’t invalidate the model, unless you’re a raging absolutist. The EB model, on the other hand, is to design the system around the exception by closing it down, and then try to eke in openness, which is obviously backwards. The funniest thing is that ‘closedness’ is a retroactive justification for hardcopy encyclopedias. The reason they’ve been that way up to now has been technology, not an improved model of quality control.

    More hands != a better product, Mr. Wales.

    Give me any definition of a better product that reflects actual use in the real world, and I will demonstrate how Wikipedia destroys EB for ‘better’.

  6. Like it or not, Wikipedia is just yet another example that demonstrates the extraordinary success of anarchy. It’s rather pitiful to see that even some libertarians resent Wikipedia, probably because they hold on to their failed centralized paradigms.

  7. It’s rather pitiful to see that even some libertarians resent Wikipedia, probably because they hold on to their failed centralized paradigms.

    The two don’t equal eachother. Wikipedia is far more of a ‘everything is public property’ notion. Contrary to what some people make of my opinions about Wikipedia, I think it’s an interesting idea, and I hope it continues. But in its pure form, Wikipedia is the public bathroom of public knowledge: anyone can put crap there.

    The infamous wikitution closed itself completely to anonymous users and now has a completely top-down approval system. Fully understood that Wikipedia is not the wikitution, but they’re based on exactly the same premise: a wiki.

    I happen to think that some of the changes Wales is making might work. Arbitration, page protections, page disputes etc. In fact, here’s a very good critique of Wikipedia from a former founder here

  8. “Eh? You just made up ‘further and further’. It started out with anti-vandalism lockouts.

    It’s fundamentally a well-understood social problem. There is a large army of well-meaning people with the common goal of improving the accuracy of the system, and a minority of dicks who have opted out of the well-meaningness either for their own gain or to amuse themselves.”

    Sidereally?

    Check out the entry for “capitalism.”

    That isn’t about vandalism, it’s about spin. What about the well-meaning person who thinks that the current entry for “capitalism” just doesn’t communicate its wonderfulness to the full effect it deserves? Or his alter ego?

  9. That isn’t about vandalism, it’s about spin. What about the well-meaning person who thinks that the current entry for “capitalism” just doesn’t communicate its wonderfulness to the full effect it deserves? Or his alter ego?

    joe, you’ve hit on something even bigger here. A technical article on the NorthEastern Nuthatch is likely to be as accurate as any other. A few interested souls who may even *gasp* have some expertise on the subject will write about it. But when you get into pages like, oh, I don’t know, George W. Bush, they’re so utterly vandalized that they become completely unusable.

    Different types of articles get different types of attention from different types of people. It’s been found that both with the Wiki concept, and the Open Source movement, you end up with many eyes looking at only a few places.

    It doesn’t invalidate the concept, but it can make it untrustworthy.

  10. And yet wikipedia is fundamentally a communist (the strict definition, not the red-baiting one) model of knowledge.

    I would expect that market proponents would favor the for-profit Britannica over the collective ‘pedia. The problem is, the wiki is objectively better by any measure and the EB guy is a dick, so it’s not a pleasant side to be on.

    Actually, money is the least interesting or important thing about economics. A market economy doesn’t forbid non-profit (in monetary terms) cooperative activities, it just doesn’t require them.

    Actually, Wikipedia is based on the idea that there is a great deal of knowledge, about a great many topics, distributed among many people. The sum total of this expertise is more than could reasonably be gathered within any manageable group of professional experts.

    This parallels the decentralized, undirected, yet somehow superior and more efficient functioning of the market, compared to the deficiencies of centrally directed planning — because no one person, or manageable group of persons, knows enough.

    That’s why pro-market people tend to like Wikipedia.

    The Britannica is for-profit, but it requires a fairly small group of people to each contribute a large amount of effort, and therefore pays a relatively large amount. Only the group employed still isn’t large enough to know everything.

    The Wikipedia pays nothing to its contributors except a sense of fun or satisfaction, but it requires very little from them (no more than they wish to contribute, for fun), and yet at the same time it draws from a relatively more huge pool of experts. So even an infinitesimal amount of per capita “pay” is sufficient to reward a fairly low level of “work” from its many, many, many “employees.” And that amassed contribution of wisdom ends up roughly balancing, or even exceeding, what is available from the harder working, more-highly-paid-per-capita, smaller pool of Britannica experts.

    The Wiki model could probably be successfully applied to a lot of things if they are ongoing projects that can withstand being constantly corrected and tweaked — but probably not a project that has to get done with a high level of quality quickly, is intoleratant of even a small number of errors, and is needed on a limited time frame. Wikibrainsurgery wouldn’t work well at all. Wikipublicmural would probably work fairly well. The possibility of Wikischooling is intriguing — Wikicollege probably being more workable than Wikikindergarten.

  11. Artoo, I suggest a new strategy: Let the Wiki win.

  12. “And yet wikipedia is fundamentally a communist (the strict definition, not the red-baiting one) model of knowledge.”

    Here is a nice article and discussion of this topic from edge.org

    http://www.edge.org/discourse/digital_maoism.html

    As with most complex adaptive systems, Wikipedia benefits from a combination of bottom-up and top-down controls. The trick is getting the balance between the two right.

  13. Actually, Wikipedia is based on the idea that there is a great deal of knowledge, about a great many topics, distributed among many people. The sum total of this expertise is more than could reasonably be gathered within any manageable group of professional experts.

    Wiki to me is more like Democracy, the more you know of your fellow man, the less you trust him to vote. Forgive my cynicism here, but what you’re relaying is the Social Realist painting of Wikipedia– The stoic contributor, sleeves rolled up, looking boldly towards the distant sunrise.

    The reality is that the great deal of knowledge is balanced (or offset) by a great deal of stupidity, ignorance and dickheadedness. The only question remaining is it an equal balance? I think most proponents of Wikipedia would argue that the quality going into Wikipedia outpaces the crap. Me, I’m a wee bit more circumspect about it.

    If you read my link above written by one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, he goes on a bit about experts being alienated from the Wikipedia process due to a kind of knee-jerk anti-elitism that exists within the ranks of the Wiki faithful.

  14. Stevo,

    “And that amassed contribution of wisdom ends up roughly balancing, or even exceeding, what is available from the harder working, more-highly-paid-per-capita, smaller pool of Britannica experts.”

    You mention three differences between the people who write Britannica, and the people who write Wikipedia:

    1. Numbers

    2. Pay

    3. Amount of work per capita.

    Isn’t there another distinction that’s worth mentioning?

  15. As with most complex adaptive systems, Wikipedia benefits from a combination of bottom-up and top-down controls.

    Exactly. Wiki started out with the true bottom-up communist ideal (the state eventually fades away version as sidereal noted) but eventually took on the more Keynsian mixed-economy model.

  16. Isn’t there another distinction that’s worth mentioning?

    I’ll bite, joe.

    4. They have a demostrated knowledge of their subject.

  17. 4. They have a demostrated knowledge of their subject.

    Demonstrated by who? To who? What makes you think the Wiki contributors haven’t demonstrated knowledge to anyone? Aren’t they doing so, by the very fact that they are writing what they know for inclusion on the wiki, and that this in turn is “peer-reviewed” by other interested parties?

    joe, I’ll say that it’s easier to hold the Britannica contributors accountable than it is for the Wiki contributors.

    And therefore the Wiki wouldn’t work — unless the people who want to expend effort in either deliberate vandalism or in writing down things they aren’t sure are true weren’t significantly outnumbered (on any given topic) by people who know what they are talking about and get pleasure in showing that off a little, even if anonymously.

    And I think they are. If you look at a blog that is frequented by adults, even if only lightly moderated, the number of people eager to contribute information — usually anonymously — are more common posters than the trolls and morons who obviously don’t know what they are talking about. I think the effort of having to type up a post acts as a kind of filter in this regard. Most people don’t want to invest much effort in being either stupid or obnoxious — unless they get a real kick out of the reaction they get for being the latter. But those types are relatively rare.

  18. He specifically told us to read the article on capitalism from the pre-Great War version of Britannica, because he deemed the later versions of the article too infected by Marxist bias! IOW, he considered the EB editors to have “vandalized” the earlier edition by letting a bunch of Fabians and Leninists re-write it.

    Yeah, that’s the problem with centralized control — it’s even easier for a bad guy to take over than a decentralized organization.

    Another way to put it: Centralized decision-making is also centralized mistake-making.

  19. I agree strongly with Stevo Darkly. I’ve been using wikipedia quite a bit lately, and very rarely have I seen any articles that had locks or statements heading them stating they had been recently vandalized.

    I also agree that most people that are obnoxious, ignorant, and or stupid are also generally too lazy to put effort into ruining entries. The most likely thing that type would do would be to simply delete an entry, in whole or part, rather than trying to add either bogus information, inflammatory prose, or simple textual garbage.

    The beauty of the system is that, again, there are vast numbers of people who just have a desire to see information about their pet entries remain accurate. Every swath of topics has a group that is devoted to it, and through their own constant interest and participation, maintain subsections of the whole.

    Having made a few changes to articles myself, I must point out that there is a full log of all changes kept, such that is exceedingly easy to repair a damaged entry merely by restoring its former status.

    True, the destructive types could continuously go back and ruin things, but really, how long would that be entertaining? Once, twice, ten, a thousand times? Highly doubtful.

    As it stands, my dictionary of choice is merriam-webster.com, and my encyclopedia of choice is wikipedia.org.

  20. “I must point out that there is a full log of all changes kept, such that is exceedingly easy to repair a damaged entry merely by restoring its former status.”

    My favorite feature is the discussion section which allows you to gauge the degree of disagreement on the topic, and view dissenting views.

  21. Absolutely. The more I use it and participate in its formulation, the more I like the entire process of creation.

  22. I would expect that market proponents would favor the for-profit Britannica over the collective ‘pedia.

    As a market proponent, I’m happy to see people try both, especially as any institution has its strengths and weaknesses. While Wikipedia is great for pop culture items (and especially nerd culture items, with entries on many individual Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes and all the characters), looking up anything people actually disagree about (say, “libertarianism”) can be an adventure.

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