Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In light of ever-present ‘media overload’ (or M.O.), Wikipedia has long been an interest of mine, ever since it launched into my consciousness a couple of years ago. Science has rated it exceptionally accurate, regarding its scientific articles at least.* The attacks this self-described public encyclopedia has undergone are conclusively baseless.

To a large extent, as a previous post echoes, Wikipedia is a fundamentally democratic medium and is pointedly populist in its form. The content, to which my contributions have been few and far-in-between — given that, minor changes/fixes, does not deserve the overly critical reception it gets, for instance, from CNN — which once sarcastically described the Wiki as a source that “anyone can edit,” ignoring the stringent filtering process.

[Anyone can edit, true, but edits are peer-reviewed — P2P — by hundreds, indeed thousands, of people: fellow contributors, observers, etc.]

Marshall Poe, in the September issue of the Atlantic Monthly, notes that Wikipedia “has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever known,” while in its origins the collaborative ethic was jump-started with so-dubbed “‘wiki magic,’” which Poe writes is “the mysterious process by which communities with common interests work to improve wiki pages by incremental contributions” (p. 91), so the serial additions became parallel.

The number of Wikipedia articles increased from 100- to 500-thousand, from January 2003 to March 2005; by March 2006, it had doubled, as the Monthly explains (pp. 90, 91). Founders Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales set up a framework in which “authors were enjoined to present the conventionally acknowledged ‘facts’ in an unbiased way, and, where arguments occurred, to accord spaces to both sides,” Poe writes, lest the entire project “slide into a morass of unproductive invective” (p. 91).

He opines that “Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth” from the standard, objective… encyclopedic one. Continues: “The community [of dedicated Wikipedians and fellow path-takers] decides that two plus two equals four … by consensus. Yes,” Poe exclaims, “that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five.

“The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing,” he adds, “but it has the ability” (p. 93). Sure, true enough, as Merriam-Webster has the same “ability” to define democracy as an empty slogan, or a commodity for export (preferably at gun-point).

Mr. Poe concludes that the network “is well ordered and … very useful” and “is laying claim to … a territory we might call ‘common knowledge,’ … the place where all nominal information about objects of widely shared experience will be negotiated, stored, and renegotiated” (p. 94). Oh, almost forgot; it’s all for free, as any decent store of information ought to be.

*As is typical, I am mistaken; the journal Nature, we read, “compared [Encyclopedia] Britannica and Wikipedia science articles and suggested that the former are usually only marginally more accurate than the latter” (ibid, my emphasis), not Science.

Also, Poe refers to an IBM “study [which] suggests that although vandalism does occur … watchful members of the huge Wikipedia community usually swoop down to stop the malfeasance shortly after it begins” (ibid). Very true. In fact, the day after satirical troublemaker Stephen Colbert — while riffing on “Wikiality” — called on people to edit the ‘Elephants’ page to read that the number of elephants has “tripled in the last three months,” sure enough someone (out of who know’s how many) added in caps at the top, THE NUMBER OF ELEPHANTS HAS TRIPLED IN THE LAST SIX MONTHS! It was gone a few minutes later. (I was kind of disappointed that I hadn’t had the chance to write it myself.)

To be sure, I am not a committed ‘Wikipedian’ by any possible measure, but I am thoroughly committed to the idea of such an open-source, democratic body of knowledge. As I’ve said before, keep it alive. And I fuckin’ meant it.

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