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Stone age memes: RIP Wikipedia

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Not everyone noticed it, but the world ended last week. The Wikipedia model tanked. The New York Times reported that the English-language version of the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” would will soon institute the editorial review of articles about living people. So there will still be a Wikipedia but the revolutionary encyclopedia we have now will, in effect, cease to exist.

The changes Wikipedia is undergoing are likely to have broad-scale effects on the Internet and on information use throughout cyberspace. They are part of a trend in managing the encyclopedia and have been in place for a year in the German edition. Anonymous users have not been able to create articles for a couple of years now, but according to the Times, “[T]he new flagging system crosses a psychological Rubicon.” Michael Snow, the chairman of the Wikimedia board, is quoted as saying, “We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks.”

Who can fault the desire for responsible management of a significant information source? Although I am well aware of long-time discussion of problems with the quality of the entries, I thought the old system worked just fine, and I respected it as a modest start on an annotated catalogue for Borges’ Library of Babel. At the same time, the travails of the free encyclopedia highlight the common failure to understand what research is all about, and how to “get the biggest bang out of your research buck.”

Now what I really love about Wikipedia is the “at your fingertips” accounts of popular culture. For example, if you want an extensive, in-depth discussion of the television series The West Wing, you will find it there. Each episode is summarized, its actors and its inaccuracies listed; the real-world events touched on are chronicled. Harry Potter is well described as well: the books, the movies and the difference between them. It makes engrossing reading and it gives good reference.

If you want to know more about a culture, Wikipedia may well give you things to think about. For example, I have been very interested in a kind of fan fiction called slash, and in yaoi, Japanese manga about male homosexual relationships, written for women. You may be more interested in Edgar Allan Poe or Troll dolls. In each case, the online encyclopedia is a great place to start.

Some articles are written at a very high level and well illustrated; the links to related material make Wikipedia an amazing tool for critical thinking. I regularly refer my Classical Civilization students to the entry on the battle of Thermopylae, which has (today) 146 footnotes, two maps, and an extensive comparison of the descriptions of the battle in Herodotus and in Diodorus Siculus. It is clearly a labor of love, and it has links to treatments of Thermopylae in popular culture, like the film 300, which my students love to read about. We can then discuss Frank Miller’s political views and how they affected his version of the events in the film.

Despite its strengths, Wikipedia has, in a sense, suffered from a kind of Catch-22. Its genius is that it uses the power of the community to provide the best version of the information available. The idea is if I start a new entry with a poor explanation of the topic, the next person who can write more clearly, or who has details I left out or misstated, will come along and improve my lame attempt. A formal study has borne out that this is exactly the process of article creation. Of the contributors, 70% don’t write their own articles, they improve (or “improve”) the work of others. But this iterative process of composition is just what causes people to distrust what they find. It’s like a version of Groucho Marx’ statement, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

In my line of work, Wikipedia is often frowned on, and some of my colleagues will not allow their students to use it as a source in their papers. I find this exasperating, because, as with everything else about research, it’s too easy.

No educated person believes that everything you find in a library, or even a scholarly journal, is true. Why should Wikipedia be any different? You have to read it, you have to notice what evidence it’s based on, you have to think about it, you have to cross-check it. There is no “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” when you’re doing research. Period.

Although there are plenty of skeptics, there are increasingly signs that in many cases, Wikipedia is the best basic source on the subject. In 2005, the journal Nature conducted a study that found the science entries in Wikipedia are about as accurate as those in other encyclopedias. A year later, Focus, a popular science magazine published by the BBC did a study that showed Wikipedia was more timely and more accurate than the leading print encyclopedias. Here is part of what the article said:

Our winner is Wikipedia which had the most detailed articles and was best equipped to deal with the ever-changing news about bird flu. While it was only marginally more accurate, it has close to 10 times more articles than the next biggest, all freely available. That means it’s most likely to have what you need.

Now I have to say there are some situations in which I don’t want Wikipedia in my classes either. I have had lazy students report material from it where they should have been using primary sources, or more nuanced sources from class. But this is the same objection as to any encyclopedia in relation to more technical material.

So really the issue is critical thinking, and the Internet is once again in a good position to make us smarter. It used to be you couldn’t get students to do research, now you can’t stop them from doing it.

The various Wikipedia memes are testimony to the ways people just like to play in the information fields, picking posies as they go. There’s an old one which has you pick and post events that happened on your birthday, and a current one that calls for creating your own band with a name and album title chosen from Wikipedia, with an album cover randomly chosen from Flickr (Wikipedia is notoriously short of relevant illustrations.) The birthday one allows you some choices, and so in your browsing, you can learn a lot while looking for events that reflect your self image.

The band meme is more constrained, but its results are no less edutaining. I just launched a rock band called Gamma Crucis, and learned the eponymous giant red star is only visible south of the Tropic of Cancer. That’s why it never received an ancient traditional name, and is named for its place in the constellation Crux. I had never heard of it before. Our first album? Conceal our Whereabouts, from a quote by Saki, the Burman-born British writer of “witty and sometimes macabre” short stories. I had heard of Saki before, but hadn’t known he was Burmese, or that his stories were macabre. I plan to read one soon. Here’s our album cover, the wonderful work of photographer Danielle Moody:

I especially like the conjunction of a star I’ve never heard of with a sardonic British colonial writer from Burma, and the photograph of a disgruntled but beautiful young woman sitting at the boundary of a beach and a parking lot. It also reminds me, by way of The Glass Palace (which is about Burma), of the additions I made recently to the Wikipedia entry for Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome.

I had just finished the novel and wanted to see what others said about it. The entry I found was by some students who had been required to read the book and were puzzled by it. I was disappointed, but my enthusiasm for the book made me decide to improve the entry. Looking up some scholarly sources, I used them to add points that would have helped the previous contributors understand the way fact and fiction are interwoven in the novel. I see that since I was there, someone has improved my formatting. The entry still needs work by a post-colonialist scholar, but it is much better than before.

There’s all this hand-wringing about the effect of computers on our intelligence, and none of it takes into account the spread of new enthusiasms and new literacies. The emphasis is all on what we have supposedly lost. In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic. He argued that

as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.

But you know the old saw: “two men looked out of the prison bars; one saw mud and the other saw a teachable moment.”

One response to Nicholas Carr says,

Books built our culture, don’t get me wrong, and have provided wonderful wealth, but ultimately they also undervalued and ignored the natural ways that humans learn: through oral interaction and in a group.

The anthropology of human knowledge indicates the role of the community is not just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. My experiences using Wikipedia suggest it is part of the solution, not the problem. Getting information from the group is much more effective at engendering a fascination for research than is the 19th century model of the scholar toiling in a solitary bastion of the ivory tower.

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10 Responses to “Stone age memes: RIP Wikipedia”

  1. I remember the time that I confronted a student with the fact that a part of his paper was plagiarized from Wikipedia. He readily acknowledged the borrowing, but defended himself by saying: “My English teacher told us never to cite Wikipedia.”

  2. Great article — consider it Twittered! :) m.

  3. ‘the natural ways that human learn: through oral interaction’
    Well, yes, but frankly where’s the oral interaction in Wikipedia? It is all written, isn’t it?
    Maybe it is just a case of ‘it’s really the same thing, more or less’?
    Anyway, the biggest problem of Wikipedia and the Internet is that they can be useful if approached critically but they undermine the really important function of learning: that is learning to learn.

  4. Nice article; I hadn’t seen that Focus study before, for example. Unfortunately, its premise is wrong. Wikipedia isn’t locking down, or anything remotely close. The NYT article and the vast majority of the flurry of news about this has been incredibly wrong—all following sensationalist “Wikipedia is locking down!” junk.

    The changes that are taking place in reality are much less dramatic. I wrote a blog post (linked here as my website) as a primer on the “flagged revisions” concept in general, and that might be useful.

    To summarize the most important points:

    a) Only articles for which the existing system of protection was justified will be eligible for using the system requiring review of edits.
    b) The old system of protection was essentially “only some people can edit this article” while the new system is “everyone can edit this article, but only some people can confirm changes”, which is *more open* than before.
    c) The only change that will be spread over the entire site is a completely passive flagging system that might just give you a notice that there’s a reviewed version of an article that might be more reliable (you’ll still see the most recent version by default).

  5. @Sascha: You’re right of course, Wikipedia isn’t oral, but the second half of the Trent Batson quote, “in a group,” does directly apply to it. And in Wikipedia, until this latest change (on which more in my next comment) there was a closer approximation of the kind of equality possible (though not guaranteed) in an “I and Thou” relationship — if I understand that concept right. (I’m not a philosopher.)
    As for approaching Wikipedia, and the rest of the Internet critically, I couldn’t agree more, and I am grateful for the reminder.
    Thanks for your fine comments!

  6. @Nihiltres: Thanks for your comments, and for the link to your lucid and detailed explanation of the changes in Wikipedia. If I had known about your site, I would have linked to it in my article. I wanted to avoid turning my discussion into the kind of technical post that your website does well. I tried to be careful of what I was claiming in my remarks: I do understand the difference between what is happening to the English-language version and what has been going on in the German version.
    What I was trying to say is that in my view, the test of FlaggedRevs is a move in an unfortunate direction, and that it moves us closer to the German implementation. If I there is anything “sensationalist” in what I wrote, it was that I wanted my readers to notice that this was not just an insignificant shift in editorial policy (like putting periods in or outside of quotes) but one they should pay attention to.
    I was aiming to write for an audience outside of the Wikipedia community, for those who may not be aware of why Wikipedia was a great resource. I certainly did not mean to attack the mechanism employed in the decision, which, as you point out, was judiciously taken and employed the resources of the group in the best Wikipedia fashion. I do, however, disagree with the decision and hope our Wikipedia finds a way to avoid the German route.
    I very much appreciate your comments.

  7. All pigs are equal, but some pigs are more equal than others. This is pretty close to what Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, and not all that far from the direction in which Wikipedia is moving. Or perhaps it is not. Wikipedia has never been a movement toward democratic socialism, but always a form of benevolent dictatorship. The changes which concern Eva are thus a change in “benevolence.”

    Now one could portray the editing changes as being in the service of TRUTH. Although, as those of us who do scholarship would tell you, truth is among the slipperiest and most elusive of pursuits. But the primacy of truth is not really that high on the agenda. On June 28, the New York Times
    carried an article about how the kidnapping of reporter David Rohde had been kept from appearing in Wikipedia and how the entry on Mr. Rohde had been edited to remove, among other “facts” his previous employment by the Christian Science Monitor. These decisions were made by a very small cadre of the “more equal.” By the way, if you read on Nihiltres website about how Wikipedia editorial policy is debated and voted upon by hundreds of users, you may wonder whether his/her post was ever so slightly misleading.

    However, this is a digression from Eva’s topic, which had to do with the responsibility of the reader to read critically as being a higher value than the responsibility of the “more equal” to protect the reader. I have sometimes wondered why Wikipedia articles do not display “regression to the mean” in which the entries of the moderately ignorant (of whom there many) crowd out the writings of the moderately knowledgeable (of whom there are many fewer.) I have no data, and no appropriate training, but I do speculate that the barrier of having to write with even pseudo-clarity keeps many people away. Putting this aside, we cannot deny that there are sociopaths who have some drive to deface the work of others. Those with some artistic talent and good running speed take up spray cans and go “tagging.” Others turn to Wikipedia.

    Does the existence of sociopaths mean that we need a dictatorship to combat them? Any one who edits a Wikipedia page has the option of checking a “Watch this page” box on their entry. So my proposal is simple: Let those who write and edit pages monitor and correct them. If some pages need more attention, post a list calling for volunteers.

    In her entry, Eva talked about modifying the Wikipedia entry for “The Calcutta Chromosome.” We see, by reading Nihiltres blog that this edit will eventually be reviewed by a “more equal” editor. So, will our dictator’s benevolence extend to being sure that the editor has even read the book? Will this “greater of our equals” be, as Eva suggests a post-colonialist scholar? Well – the present evidence does not bode well. Eva Thury writes under her own name and you can Google her or visit her webpage to find out about her. I write under my own name, and a quick Google will tell you more than you care to know, but our Wikipedia apologist Nihiltres hides. Now there many reasons other than cowardice that a person might not want to accept responsibility for their words, it may be that Nihiltres works for a company which would not approve of his/her association with Wikipedia, perhaps Nihiltres is a person so famous that knowing his/her identity would bias out judgment, or it could be that, like the fictional Hannibal Lecter, he has specialized knowledge valuable to Wikipedia but must conceal his identity from the authorities.

    It all comes down to this: Do you think that information should be moderated by a dictator and his “more equal” cronies based on the belief that we, the unwashed hoi polloi, should not be expected to judge and evaluate what we read, or do you believe that the vision the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is ultimately more powerful than any dictatorial structure?

  8. Excellent piece. I’m not familiar enough with the editorial process to debate details, but efforts to improve quality and accuracy are a good thing, even at the expense of pure “democracy”.

    I recently read and reviewed (for Jonathan Littel’s gargantuan Holocaust novel “The Kindly Ones”. I found Wikipedia indispensable in understanding the Third Reich’s military and political hierarchies mentioned in the novel.

  9. Thank you for the article, Eva. I enjoyed reading it and I appreciate your perspective. Apologies for being such a latecomer to the discussion.

    What concerns me the most about the imposition of selective editorial review is the implication of its apparent necessity. The NYT reports that recent studies “have found Wikipedia is no longer as attractive to first-time or infrequent contributors as it once was,” which suggests that fewer people are abusing it. Likewise, over the years, measures have been instituted to prevent abuse where controversial subjects are concerned, specifically, living people and current events. Also, since the birth of Wikipedia, other venues for broadcasting personal opinions about contentious issues have become widely popular (Twitter being a prime example), which may also reduce the extent of misuse on the site.

    Above, Carl Drott asks whether the existence of sociopaths means that we need a dictatorship to combat them. I find his labels hyperbolic, but Wikipedia’s test-phase M.O. does imply that abuses within the community, however infrequent and short-lived, are presently damaging enough to warrant editorial policing by “more equal”–which may well mean “more trusted”–persons; and this is chalked up to the responsibility that comes with disseminating information on a large scale.

    You argue–as an intelligent, articulate, and conscientious human being capable of critical thought–that you hope “our Wikipedia finds a way to avoid the German route.” The task of finding a way belongs (or once belonged) to people like you, who play in the information field harmlessly and respect it for the resource it is. Here’s what I wonder: How much will it take to earn the trust of the new system? What do *I* have to do to acquire the right to approve or reject a flagged change? And how many others like me will there be?

  10. The illustrious Cory Doctorow has posted a response to wikipedia doomsayers on boing boing which seems to be stirring up its own controversy. I’d like to see your response. Better yet, post it to boing boing.

    Wow, I seem to have passed a threshold where I don’t even recognize my own posts as being in English any more.

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