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« Attention as a Social Fact | Main | Scaling Wikipedia »

January 8, 2005

On a Vetted Wikipedia, Reflexivity and Investment in Quality (a.k.a. more responses to Clay)

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Posted by danah boyd

In response to Clay, i definitely do not believe that Wikipedia should be ignored and i definitely do not believe that Britannica is better - just different. When i said that Wikipedia will never be an encyclopedia, i am definitely referencing the current definition (although being flexible on the fact the definition does state book form). Whether the definition will expand, who knows but i don’t think it matters. Both encyclopedias and Wikipedia are knowledge resources and they will always be different. If legitimacy requires a definitional change, i’m worried. Why does it have to be an encyclopedia? Why can’t it simply be Wikipedia?

In this (long) entry, i want to make 3 points:
1) A vetted Wikipedia can have complementary value;
2) Reflexivity would be of great value for entries that interpret (not necessarily for entries that are about empirical facts);
3) Authority has to do with knowledge, investment and risk.

I am not arguing for a radical altering of Wikipedia. That said, i can envision new features that would complement what currently exists. When i argue that i would like a vetted version, i have a particular vision of it. I would like to go to Wikipedia, see an open entry that is universally writable with a section that has been vetted and whose authors, affiliations and motivations are listed alongside that vetted component. Let me contextualize this through example.

Let’s talk about the Wikipedia entry on Anomie. This is a classic term from introductory sociology (and often a “define this” on a test). If i were teaching Soc101 and my students wrote this, i wouldn’t think that they got it. Now, it is a perfectly good definition and it isn’t flawed, but it’s missing much of the context and Durkheim’s essence. Two things are notably missing: religion, division of labor. While a Durkheim scholar probably would have included this, they probably would not have included its Greek roots or a band of the same name. Those additional factoids are part of what makes Wikipedia utterly lovable.

Alternatively, consider the definition of Anomie at the Emile Durkheim Archive. Here, we have citations as well as interpretation of both primary and secondary texts (and brief references to both religion and division of labor). We know the status of the author (a student in sociology), why he wrote this entry and who has checked his entry for verification. Yes, he could be lying, but this is much more reassuring than an entry written by N unknown people.

When i’m writing sociology papers, i want to understand Durkheim’s definition as deeply as possible, not simply have a passing understanding. For this reason, i would ideally have a Durkheim scholar define anomie to grok what Durkheim meant by it. That’s not always possible (although part of the reason why i take sociology classes). Instead, i try to suss it out both through the primary text and through secondary interpretations. Yet, when using secondary interpretations, i really want to understand from where the author is coming.

In anthropology, there is a concept called reflexivity. It is the process by which a research articulates and situates the biases that they bring into a situation, with the knowledge that all data acquired is interpreted and that the researcher’s biases affect that interpretation. Not everything in Wikipedia is a fact - most of it is an interpretation of some concept. Birthdates are facts. Descriptions of theories are interpretations. And the fact of the matter is that scholars rarely have the same interpretation of any theorist (a fact that results in heated debates between scholars that are utterly off-putting or perceptibly trivial to non-academics).

This comes to where i would like the combination of vetted and open portions of an entry. I would love if Wikipedia would allow scholars to write static components to entries with a publicly identified author. Let the Asian Tsunami Disaster be written at first by anyone, but let the scientists have a vetted section that explains how the quake created a tsunami.

Now, i totally agree with Clay that Wikipedia is a system not a product (another reason that the label encyclopedia is poor). Britannica and Wikipedia are both brands. Britannica’s says that each entry is well-researched and every effort is being made to convey the entire picture. The Wikipedia brand does not guarantee the same efforts nor does it guarantee equal quality between entries. It is an open-source brand that says that there is an equal opportunity for entries to be written. Different brands, different expectations, different quality.

I am not skeptical about Wikipedia - i value it intensely. But i don’t give it authority simply because it is open-source. I don’t buy into that religion.

I also believe that there is something to be said about expertise. The eccentric PhDs with their narrow focus have spent years dedicated to understanding very particular areas of knowledge. They are invested in the accuracy of a particular topic, understand the different debates and are deeply aware of the consequences of poor interpretation. They research things actively, trying to express all sides. It is not simply their authority that makes their descriptions have weight - it is also what they have to lose if they fuck up. Academics and public intellectuals risk far more when they assert bad interpretations than people whose job description does not include intellectual evolution and educating the next generation.

PS: I love the fact that there is a burgeoning intellectual discussion on this topic in which so many people are talking.

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: social software


1. Mark ranford on January 9, 2005 7:33 AM writes...

Hi Dana, I think you were spot on with your critique of wikipedia, it is a big issue - the trustworthiness of content. However I feel youre being "nice" to wikipedia by saying its ok for what its relevant for is selling the future short. Better would be to take up your challenge and galvanize the wiki/wikipedia community to realize that the HUGE potential benefits of the wiki/wikipedia concepts will not be fulfilled unless these issues are address.

I wrote a quick piece on this earlier but my own blog is acting up :-) however I'd like to post it here and share my thoughst with you.

First off, I Love Wiki / wikipedia...

But, I do feel that it has a couple of huge issues needing improvement. In fact a great discussion at Corante, Many to Many between Clay Shirky and Dana Boyd, has brought up some important questions about wikipedia, among them the reputation and trustworthiness of the content.

I'd like to make a couple of suggestions here. My main point is that I believe we should take inspiration form the greatest force of nature, evolution.

First, assingment of context/reputation to the content

wiki in wikepedia's incarnation of it needs more context. Consider Amazon's book reviews. I love these. Because there is a great reputation system behind the reviews. Reading something but being blind about who, where it came form, is really not very good. Meaning is a lot more than just the words. When we watch a play and see someone get shot, we dont call an ambulance, thats because we understand the context. Well wiki content has almost Zero context, Amazon has heaps. Without saying much more I think its very simple, wiki will not continue to make progress unless we can build context and some better trust/reputation into the system. We need someway of understanding the background & reputation of the authors, even if the final content is totally an integrated mass and cannot be ascribed item by item to individuals. At the very least we need to see who was involved and have some background info available about them, without this wikipedia is nice, interesting, but will not be the great resource it potentially could be. This issue is not just relevant for wikipedia but for mnay iuses of wiki technology in organizations or communities.

Interestingly the addition of Amazon style reviews/reputations etc would trun wiki/pedias into being very valuable social tools because they would provide us with the enormous value of knowing about the communities of people behind the ideas. And thats another whole bag of worms/tricks to explore. Really it gets into the blogosphere realm somewhat. But if wikipedia doesnt address this I do feel that the next several iterations of blogosphere evolution may make current wiki/pedia less and less relevant to our future collective dialogue and record of ideas

Second, the evolution of the wiki content itself

Consider evolution, what makes evolution such a powerful force? I believe that most would agree that its a combination of natural selection combined with genetic diversity. I believe that a big problem with wiki is that it doesnt have any way of representing something analogous to genetic diversity. And I believe diversity of ideas is just as important as diversity of genes. If wiki is to progress it must allow us to have this diversity of ideas and opinions.

I propose that wiki/wikipedia uses the same formula to assist the evoloution of its content.

Evolution and diversity of recorded ideas

Basically, rather than just having a history, every page should be considered equivalent to a species, and alternative pages should be allowed to represent individuals of the species.

For example a wiki page on Ward cunningham, gets created by A, later B comes in and adds to A, creating AB, later C comes in but instead of agreeing he prefers to create an alternative to A, which is C. We now have to competing versions of the species (an entry about Ward Cunningham). future contributors have the choice of which to modify, or can create yet another. Each page will have a summary of the number of contributors, their reputation, as well as describing stats of alternative pages for this species.

Natural selection occurs naturally, those ideas that are more accurate, interesting, forceful, will be built upon, supported, refined more than others, we will easily see which ideas are given more weight, but we will importantly still be able to see other ideas that may not be mainstream, though they may be importnt as well. And in the case of two strong opposing views, wiki will have them both represented.

Wiki now becomes a much more real and important repository for ideas.

Social taxonomies

Now, Imagine we combine the concept of folksomonies, social tagging, with wiki's, specifically thinking of Wikipedia

Not just a diversity of pages, but the actual taxonomy of species (pages) could be evolved. This may be harder to enable within a wiki system, but wouldnt it be great if shared categorization could actually lead to an enriched wiki connection structure. This metadata is something that is overlooked in Wiki. Wiki has focused on evolving a collective content and part of that includes connections between pages, but that is no where near sufficient. Words and ideas DRIP meaning, they DRIP connections, ambiguities etc. There should be a very very rich layer of ontologogy laid on top of the base content, allowing for flexible and multiple categorization. word partciles built up upon word particles, accretion of words and meanings, building up to lerger concepts and items linking back and between each other weaving and heaving under the diversity and immenseness of human thought and culture. No one person, organization or system can or should control such a thing. It has to be created out of the collective pool of humanity, because they are the only ones who represent this. Social categorization by way of systems like Flickr and come closest to helping this kind of shared knowledge emerge. Wiki systems need to take note of this, because what wiki has done for content, and the like are doing for metdata/folksonomies. But wikipedia and others really need to employ these same ideas to make their content begin the journey towards becoming more like a semantic web. when we search the wikipedia we can search by the shared social taxonomy.

I honestly believe that if we make content authoring more contextual, trustworthy & reputable. Allow mechanisms for diversity and competition of ideas as well as cooperation & integration of ideas, Wiki will have a role to play in becoming a central resource for our recorded collective intelligence.

Take Wiki techs to the next level

I believe its now about time for the wiki development community to rise up and move wiki technologies and systems forward another level, Wiki is a great concept, but all recent developments have been mostly technologically oriented improvements, with the likes of socialtext, jotspot, xwiki, leading the way. But the fundamental social usage concepts behind wiki have not changed much since its conception. Lets move it to a newer higher level to allow for better diversity and evolution of our recorded collective intelligence. Stewart Henshall, Dina Mehta, Jerry Michalski and co at Yi Tan (see cjhanging bloggings context ) are beginning a brave new challenge, what they call taking blogging to the next level. This is great, and I will watch it closely. But funnily I think what they are doing is not taking blogs but rather taking Wiki's to the next level by incorporating blogosphere concepts. I'm keen to see how it evolves, though I am wary that they may lose the most critical aspect along the way, that is the place where we express our unique & individual perspective on the world. Even when wrong to the majority, it is unmodifiable by anyone them.


Normally I harp on about the critical value of Blogs being that they provide a place where we can represent our unique position, identity, and personal points of view. Thus the blog represents humanities online diversity. I still keep this position. We must have a Virtual Persona that gives expression to each of our unique perspectives on the world. Many people are now looking at the question of the future of blogs and wiki's, usually in terms of which of the two blogs or Wiki will first evolve to encompass the other. I believe that we MUST have both elements in whatever future system emerges. We cannot have true Collective integration without allowing for individual diversity. The Collective must record the multiplicity of individual expressions. The wiki suggestions I make above are to include the diversity concept to assist the collective integration of wiki's. However it may well be that ultimately "content" particles that are created and used in such a collective space, are originally authored elsewhere, maybe in an individuals personal blog (soapbox) and then simply pulled into and replicated (or just re-presented) in the collective wiki spaces rather than being explicitly created there (or it may be the other way round (rather than a Blog space as such we just have a Virtual Persona system, this system pulls in all content particles and trails that we make along our way and repurpose them to appear as our blog whenever that is needed). Some kind of underlying interoperable data exchange standards & systems need to be in place, to allow this. But Im confident that with the explosion in interest and ideas competing in the blog & wiki spheres something will soon emerge to take our breath away.

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2. Graham on January 9, 2005 4:40 PM writes...

"Now, it is a perfectly good definition and it isn’t flawed."

Arent you calling it flawed by saying that you wouldnt accept it as a good awnser?

And having noticed this, isnt just a simple matter of going and editing the wiki to fix this problem?

It seems to me that people are generally drawn to subjects they are intrested in or know a lot about. So while not all the entries are written by people with phD's, they are written by people who know more about it then you do. And if they dont, you can go and edit it yourself.

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3. zephoria on January 9, 2005 6:42 PM writes...

Graham - i'm saying its incomplete, wattered down - good enough for generic use, but not good enough for the classroom.

I'm sorry but i cannot preemptively find all entries that are not good enough for my students and edit them. That's unreasonable. And in this context, it is being as an example to illustrate a point. Of course, i could edit any post that i could use as an example, but that's not the point.

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4. i1277 on January 10, 2005 8:36 AM writes...

I don't think Graham meant quite literally to track down and edit every entry you might find inadequate or even faulty. But that over time, the entries will probably be refined, most likely by those who care the most/know the most about the subject in question.

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5. Yaacov on January 10, 2005 11:27 AM writes...

"It is not simply their authority that makes their descriptions have weight - it is also what they have to lose if they fuck up." -Danah Boyd

This point brings up an unfrequently mentioned, but important, benefit of wikipedia; it allows unpopular ideas into "mainstream" thought. This whole conversation is revolving around how to make wikipedia authoritative. But, as Danah points out, authorities don't like saying things that endanger their reputations, even if those things are true. What I like about wikipedia is that non-authorities can speak their points of view there. The ability of any user to add a phrase like "the earth revolves around the sun" does more for freedom of thought and, in the long run, for its accuracy than any system of authority.

That ability for minorities (of any kind) to have as much of a voice as majorities is a benefit that
shouldn't be overlooked when vetting is discussed.

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6. Lloyd Dalton on January 11, 2005 12:48 AM writes...

"I would love if Wikipedia would allow scholars to write static components to entries with a publicly identified author."

They can. On their own websites. And wikipedia can link to them. Or not. And that's as good as it's going to get.

Permalink to Comment

7. Tim on January 13, 2005 10:50 AM writes...

"That ability for minorities (of any kind) to have as much of a voice as majorities is a benefit that
shouldn't be overlooked when vetting is discussed."

I thought the opposite was true--doesn't the minority voice get erased, and what remains is only what the majority can agree upon?

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