Oct 22, 2008

The Future of: Wikipedia (Redux)

Over at the Marketing & Strategy Innovation Blog a Wikipedian, Nihiltres, has left a detailed comment in response to my post 'The Future of: Wikipedia'.

While Nihiltres makes quite a few valid points, his comment skirts the big question the post rasied. Should Wikipedia be referred to as an encyclopaedia at all? I need to clarify that the question wasn't meant as a criticism of Wikipedia, but more as a clarification for people who regularly fall into the trap of arguing whether its content is reliable or not.

I am posting here Nihiltres' entire comment and my responses to the points raised.

Nihiltres: "Deletionpedia is not official in any way; it's merely the biggest endeavour of its kind. Someone with deleted-article access (i.e. an administrator) is running a bot to retrieve deleted articles. Many deleted articles do not go to Deletionpedia, especially those which are copyright violation, libel, et cetera. You can request copies of deleted articles from most Wikipedia administrators, who will do it happily so long as the article's content isn't problematic."

I am aware that Deletionpedia isn't an official site - but was totally unaware that one can request copies of deleted articles from administrators. Thanks for the info.

Nihiltres: "Wikipedia does have statistics, just they don't do it themselves, for the obvious reason that they can't spare the server resources. A third-party site tracks page-view statistics and has made them available and easily searchable. Wikipedians would love to have more statistics, and have even added a number of new statistics to the software lately: for example, Special:Statistics includes a new entry "active users" listing the number of unique users to have made at least one action in the past 30 days. I'm particularly familiar with the addition of this feature as I personally added the descriptive text about how it's determined to the interface. Regardless, statistics generally takes a back seat to the running of the rest of the site, and increasing need for servers generally results in some of the more "nice-to-have, but not essential" features getting disabled. If you want to help solve this, donate to the Wikimedia Foundation and encourage others to do the same. You can even specify that your donation go towards statistics-related improvements in hardware and software."

Again I was unaware of the availability of third party page view statistics. It's better than nothing of course, but they don't substitute for embedded statistics within every page, which is what I was arguing for.

To draw an analogy, anyone can look up an atlas to calculate the distance between two places. But that doesn't make road signs announcing distances (or directions) redundant. In the case of the latter, the data is embedded within the terrain itself - making it useful in a way that no atlas can. It felt a bit like referring to the atlas when I checked the stats of the populartity of pages - it's when the data is emebbed right within Wikipedia's individual pages that we'll see Wikipedia users explore it secure in the knowledge of what they can trust and what they cannot.

Perhaps, the problem is also with the "statistics generally takes a back seat to the running of the rest of the site" view. Conspicuous statistics about page-views, edits, etc. are a way of teaching and informing users about Wikipedia itself. It's the failure to do that which has resulted in the widespread misunderstanding of what Wikipedia is and what it stands for.

Nihiltres: "The market and trade analogies are difficult to swallow: if anything, Wikipedia is a gift economy, where everyone donates to a common pool of a non-commoditizable resource."

By referring to Wikipedia as a marketplace for information, I wasn't implying that money was changing hands (though Microsoft attempted something along those lines; and I won't be surprised if others haven't.) While Wikipedia is indeed a gift economy (or more likely, a reputation economy), an important part of both these terms is the word 'economy' itself. There is a trade or a barter - not necessarily in the monetary understanding of it.

What do Wikipedia contributors get in return for their efforts? Joy, pride, respect, the ability to influence people's views and - not to be underestimated in any way - their very own Wikipedia User Page.

Nihiltres: "While the notability system is contentious and has never quite worked, it does solve many problems with original research, vanity articles, spam, and other issues. The parent policy from which it derives, Wikipedia:Verifiability, has surely greatly increased Wikipedia's evident reliability, and repeated discussions have upheld its usefulness. While it's surely annoying as hell, it's often the only way to justify that something that obviously doesn't belong be excluded. Other methods, such as visitor-number measurement, aren't effective in practice. For example, the visitor-number model fails to distinguish between unworthy topics and obscure topics: is "Geoffrey Chaucer" less important than "Penis" because more immature teenagers view the latter? It's easy to criticize the current system (and the critics are usually correct), but I have yet to see a viable alternative."

I am a strong believer of William McDonough's maxim: "Regulations are signals of design failure." So introducing new regulations to deal with complications will only give rise to more complications - as Nihiltres acknowledges is the problem with Wikipedia's notability system. Given an opportunity to solve a problem, I'd urge, tinker with the design.

Visitor-number measurement might fail under the condition specified by Nihiltres - but refine it a bit, compare articles within categories (or within tags) and you'll end up showing a comparison between Geoffrey Chaucer and, say, Thomas Mallory.

And finally, I am not so much a critic of Wikipedia itself (if anything, I'm a Wikipedia believer). I am a critic of the direction it's currently taking - by striving to be seen as a 'reliable encyclopaedia' Wikipedia is being untrue to its roots.

Instead of glossing over its shortcomings, Wikipedia, I believe, should be transparent about them at all times - and especially at the very moment when a user is using it as a reference.

And if it means dropping the word 'encyclopaedia' from its description, so be it.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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