Saturday, August 30, 2008

A positive spin on Wikipedia chaos

Maverick Sen. John McCain’s selection of maverick Gov. Sarah Palin caused a lot of confusion in political and journalism circles Friday. As with other events, it sent a lot of people to Wikipedia to learn more.

One of those going to Wikipedia was Mercury columnist Chris O’Brien, who’s become their most insightful tech columnist since Dean Takahashi jumped ship earlier this year.

O’Brien used his own curiosity and a major news event to study (informally) how a previously little-known topic becomes elaborated by cooperative information production. As he reported

As I write this late Friday afternoon, there had already been more than 1,200 edits to her entry. What I saw unfold over the course of the day was a chaotic, complex, messy process, but one that ultimately led to an article that was far longer and deeper.

Wikipedia tends to push people's buttons. Founded in 2001, the online encyclopedia allows anyone to edit articles, relying on the wisdom of the crowd to contribute and to improve the amount and quality of information. I've found that people either see this as a symbol of what's best about the Web, or a sign that society no longer cares about accuracy and expertise.

I saw the frenzy around Palin's entry as an interesting test case. While she had a decent-size entry before Friday, she was hardly a major public figure. So there was plenty left unsaid there, plenty of gaps to be filled in.
Eventually, as with other controversial topics on Wikipedia, the website had too many contributions — and too many distortions and fights — and thus had to ban anonymous contributions to the Palin WikiPedia entry.

It used to be that Wikipedia marked prominently that a page was partially or totally “locked down” by administrators. Today, if you go to a page (without signing in to Wikipedia) on a controversial topic — like Palin, abortion, the Iraq war — the “edit this page” option is missing, unlike the entries for Michael Palin, adoption, or the Iran-Iraq War.

O’Brien seems to see a positive side in Wikipedia’s ability to deal with a sudden interest in the one-term Alaska governor.

Reading the article, it is very detailed and — from what I can see — relatively balanced. Here’s two sentences that are better (in terms of clarity and neutrality) than one often sees nowadays from the AP, once the gold standard in fairness:
Palin has strongly promoted oil and natural gas resource development in Alaska, despite concerns from environmentalists. She also helped pass a tax increase on oil company profits
In some other places, there is subtle editorializing by juxtaposing two facts together, even though the individual sentences are neutral. This is hardly unique to this page (or Wikipedia), although it probably wouldn’t be found in a professional encyclopedia.

It appears that the Palin entry has drawn a wide range of supporters and critics, and that by a very labor-intensive intervention, Wikipedia administrators have shaped a comprehensive (and relatively fair and accurate) profile in a very short period of time. O’Brian sees this as a good thing.

I think the jury is still out. The challenge for Wikipedia has always been in the thinly-populated pages, where any bozo (or any group of bozos) can say what they want and not get detected — or use their persistence to shout down people who actually know something.

The Siegenthaler libel is a serious example of this problem. My own unsuccessful fight (as a business historian) over the misleading use of “Fairchildren” (in a page I created) caused me to quit Wikipedia. It is (slightly) reassuring that the edit war is over and that the current discussion is relatively accurate in how it presents the various claimed uses of the term.

Of course, I recognize that — along with professional journalists, librarians and a small minority of Americans who profess to care about the “truth” — I’m on the losing end of a sysyphean fight against Wikipedia as being “good enough.” The Internet and a wide range of volunteer wiki contributors, bloggers, citizen journalists or whatever you want to call them are fueling the commoditization of information.

A decade ago, then UCI professor Yannis Bakos showed that competition for information goods (i.e. those goods with a zero duplication or distribution cost) will reduce the price to zero. So much of for the value of the accurate, professionally-developed encyclopedia of my childhood.

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