Tuesday, October 25, 2005


  Thankfully, the Guardian has taken on the new kid at school, Wikipedia, and explained its limitations. I no longer feel like some odd sort left out at the sidelines of an e-revolution, as there is some public acknowledgement that it is not perfect. I no longer feel awkward that I belong to a small group of people that think a massive resource that is most erudite on aspects of Pokemon and computery nerdy things is a bit useless for my ends.
  I have always been annoyed with Wikipedia, because some people online use it as a repository of gospel truth! "It's written by everybody, so it's the spirit of the net, man!" However, bringing in every passing 'netizen' to write about something they (think they) know about is not exactly the same as knowledge, and I guess that this is what needles me.   Just like Plato's distinction between true knowledge and opinion, there is something lacking in Wikipedia that any thoughtful and inquisitive person needs.
  A Wiki article is built on the 'smoothing' process of allowing everyone to edit them, adding, subtracting, changing. What is written only stays as it is by an uneasy consensus between people of different views, so, 'therefore' what is produced is democratically authoritative. Or, perhaps, the inability to state a contentious view actually hampers any attempt to analyse, be provocative, or explore an unusual and innovative perspective.
  This is, I feel, exactly the problem the article uncovers. A bunch of experts review sample articles and find that the writing is often 'unhelpful', i.e. stating contested points as bland fact; there are absolute wrongnesses; it's "not analytical"; there are "omissions"; and, finally, the most damning criticism of the article on encyclopedias is "In other words, it is a school essay, sketchy and poorly balanced."
  I would agree broadly with "These cavils aside, it's obvious that someone has taken care to make the entry factually accurate, even if the way it is written lacks clarity and doesn't necessarily inspire confidence." But I would also agree wholeheartedly with, when discussing Sammy Pepys' diary, "And it is poor on the diary itself. There is no appreciation of its literary merits. It ends with, "Reading it, one cannot help thinking how very much we must all be alike. His characteristic closing sentence was: 'And so to bed'." Which is hardly a worthy summary of the literary merits of one of our great literary works."
  Interestingly, at the end of that 'school essay' encyclopedia article, the payoff is a little mention of how great and new and special an example of such Wikipedia is. See if you can spot the hagiography in the following, from the self-referencing article on Wikipedia, that was existant as of now (when this post was published):
On October 24, 2005, The Guardian published an article "Can you trust Wikipedia?" where a group of experts critically reviewed entries for their fields. Discussing Wikipedia as an academic source, Danah Boyd said in 2005 that "[i]t will never be an encyclopedia, but it will contain extensive knowledge that is quite valuable for different purposes." Wikipedia articles have been referenced by academics in peer-reviewed articles, including those appearing in the journal Science.

  To which the response is: scientists should be more careful about reading widely. And, also, it might be best to actually discuss what you reference rather than immediately dismiss it without even delving into its contents. Because that's what an encyclopedia entry is about. Just because anybody can write does not make Wiki the repository of all knowledge, just the stuff that gets through the prejudices and abilities of your average Wiki writer. And, sadly, they are hobbyists, and not necessarily right.


Post a Comment

<< Home