Slashdot has a roundup of criticism of the Wikipedia, including a pointer to a Kuro5hin article by Larry Sanger, a co-founder of the Wikipedia, making three strong criticisms of the Wikpedia as it stands.
The first criticism is that the Wikpedia lacks the perception of acccuracy:
My point is that, regardless of whether Wikipedia actually is more or less reliable than the average encyclopedia, it is not perceived as adequately reliable by many librarians, teachers, and academics. The reason for this is not far to seek: those librarians etc. note that anybody can contribute and that there are no traditional review processes. You might hasten to reply that it does work nonetheless, and I would agree with you to a large extent, but your assurances will not put this concern to rest.
This analysis seems to be correct on the surface, and at the same time deeply deeply wrong. Of course librarians, teachers, and academics don’t like the Wikipedia. It works without privilege, which is inimical to the way those professions operate.
This is not some easily fixed cosmetic flaw, it is the Wikipedia’s driving force. You can see the reactionary core of the academy playing out in the horror around Google digitizing books held at Harvard and the Library of Congress — the NY Times published a number of letters by people insisting that real scholarship would still only be possible when done in real libraries. The physical book, the hushed tones, the monastic dedication, and (unspoken) the barriers to use, these are all essential characteristics of the academy today.
It’s not that it doesn’t matter what academics think of the Wikipedia — it would obviously be better to have as many smart people using it as possible. The problem is that the only thing that would make the academics happy would be to shoehorn it into the kind of filter, then publish model that is broken, and would make the Wikipedia broken as well.
Sanger’s second complaint is about governance:
Far too much credence and respect accorded to people who in other Internet contexts would be labelled “trolls.” There is a certain mindset associated with unmoderated Usenet groups and mailing lists that infects the collectively-managed Wikipedia project: if you react strongly to trolling, that reflects poorly on you, not (necessarily) on the troll. If you attempt to take trolls to task or demand that something be done about constant disruption by trollish behavior, the other listmembers will cry “censorship,” attack you, and even come to the defense of the troll.
This complaint is right, I think, inasmuch as it hits the core problem of Wikipedia (and of social software generally), namely governance. How do you take a group of individuals who disagree and get them to co-create, and to agree to be bound by a decision-making process that will assure that no one gets everything they want? And how do you also make that system open?
However, Sanger gives Wales and the Wikipedia contributors too little credit here, I think. Governance is a certified Hard ProblemTM, and at the extremes, co-creation, openness, and scale are incompatible. The Wikipedia’s principle advantage over other methods of putting together a body of knowledge is openness, and from the outside, it looks like the Wikipedia’s guiding principle is “Be as open as you can be; close down only where there is evidence that openness causes more harm than good; when this happens, reduce openness in the smallest increment possible, and see if that fixes the problem.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
You can see this incrementalism in the Wikipedia crew’s creeping approach to limiting edits — not allowing edits on the home page, paragraph level edits on long articles, etc. These kinds of solutions were deployed only in response to particular problems, and only after those problems were obviously too severe to be dealt with in any other way.
This pattern means that there will always be problems with governance on the Wikipedia, by definition. If you don’t lock down, you will always get the problems associated with not locking down. However, to take the path Sanger seems to be advocating — lock down more, faster — risks giving up the Wikipedia’s core virtue. The project may yet fail because there is no sweet spot between openess and co-creation at Wikipedia scale. But to lock down pre-emptively won’t be avoiding that failure but accelerating it.
Sanger’s final point, that the Wikipedia is anti-elitist, is quite similar to his first complaint. Yes, it is impossible for experts on a subject to post their views without molestation but that’s how wikis work. It’s certainly easy to imagine systems where experts are deferred to mechanically. Much of the world, including, significantly, the academy, works that way. But if you want a system that works that way, you don’t want a wiki, and if you want a wiki, you won’t get a system that works that way.
In place of ordained expertise, my guess is that the Wikipedia will move further towards a ‘core group’ strategy, where there will be increasing separation of powers between committed and casual users, and the system will gain a kind of deference, not for expertise (a fairly elusive quality that Sanger invokes but never defines)
It’s been fascinating to watch the Kubler-Ross stages of people committed to Wikipedia’s failure: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Denial was simple; people who didn’t think it was possible simply dis-believed. But the numbers kept going up. Then they got angry, perhaps most famously in the likening of the Wikipedia to a public toilet by a former editor for Encyclopedia Brittanica. Sanger’s post marks the bargaining phase; “OK, fine, the Wikipedia is interesting, but whatever we do, lets definitely make sure that we change it into something else rather than letting the current experiment run unchecked.”
Next up will be a glum realization that there is nothing that can stop people from contributing to the Wikipedia if they want to, or to stop people from using it if they think it’s useful. Freedom’s funny like that.
Finally, acceptance will come about when people realize that head-to-head comparisons with things like Britannica are as stupid as comparing horseful and horseless carriages — the automobile was a different kind of thing than a surrey. Likewise, though the Wikipedia took the -pedia suffix to make the project comprehensible, it is valuable as a site of argumentation and as a near-real-time reference, functions a traditional encyclopedia isn’t even capable of. (Where, for example, is Britannica’s reference to the Indian Ocean tsunami?)
The Wikipedia is an experiment in social openness, and it will stand or fall with the ability to manage that experiment. Whining like Sanger’s really only merits one answer: the Wikipedia makes no claim to expertise or authority other than use-value, and if you want to vote against it, don’t use it. Everyone else will make the same choice for themselves, and the aggregate decisions of the population will determine the outcome of the project.
And 5 years from now, when the Wikipedia is essential infrastructure, we’ll hardly remember what the fuss was about.