Monday, February 2, 2009

Transparency and Wikipedia

At the risk of beating a subject into the ground (right, like I've never done that before), I'm going to take up the matter of Wikipedia one last time. For those who haven't been following my saga, last Thursday I wrote a short post in which I linked to a post by John McIntyre in which he offers some sources that he, in his role as a copy editor for a newspaper, finds preferable to Internet darling Wikipedia. Later that day, I considered the topic further and expounded on why I have dropped my standards in dealing with a world that no longer seems to value correctness. Friday I went through the comments that McIntyre received, some of which demonstrated a proper grain-of-salt approach to Wikipedia, but a few of which showed a disturbing belief that it is something beyond criticism. Finally, Saturday I discussed one of the comments in particular, pointing out what an ineffective rhetorical device the term "bitter" is.

[I received a couple of good comments on these, to which I did not take the time to formulate answers. To the Saturday post, I received a thoughtful response from Citizen Carrie, in part:
A problem I've found with a lot of the links to "references you can trust" (e.g., from state library associations, schools, and yes, from John McIntyre, etc.) is that it looks like the links were set up by someone who took a 2-week .html class 10 years ago, and no one has bothered to go back to update the information....[After getting less information than she needs,] at that point, (and this happens to me every single time, and I admit I should probably hunt a little more), I give up on the "trusted source" and fall back to Google and my built in BS-meter.
Broken links are a huge problem on the Web, and, like an unmarked dead-end street, cause more frustration than would seem seemly. But, as I alluded to before, the very point of a reference work is that we should not have to rely on our own judgment, no matter how well-honed. Wikipedia breaks that relationship between our sources and us.

On Friday, I received a comment from the oddly-named Anonymous, which was insightful and funny:
The problem is not Wikipedia's existence per se, but its insistence on calling itself an encyclopedia. And, contrary to Hartman's claim, it does just that. Under the logo it simply says "The Free Encyclopedia," not "The Encyclopedia that anyone can edit," and of course even that would be misleading. It has been suggested that "Jimbo's Big Bag o' Trivia" would be more appropriate.
Jimbo is, of course, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose very fame (check out the embarrassing TIME profile from 2006; of course, it was written by faux-trendmeister Chris Anderson) and ersatz significance belies the disingenous claims of the Wikipediaphiliacs that it's a work in progress, don't take it too seriously by, say, reading it for accuracy or anything.]

Here's the main point of today's effort, and it is an attempt to sum up the discussion here and at John McIntyre's place: Wikipedia, and much of the so-called New Media, values transparency over accuracy. I've written about transparency before, but, perhaps, not enough.

Transparency is a concept, along with accountability, that is seen as the magic, and simple, bullet that will solve various of our woes. Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools, babbles away about accountability as if that alone will solve the massive problems of that unfortunate city.

However, transparency is the thing that will get us where we need to be. Eric Schmidt of Google appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulos yesterday, and he was touting the idea that what the various government spending schemes need is transparency, that if we put all the details of what we're paying for online, we'll be able to measure the effectiveness of these giveaways and make adjustments. (I never think of Rep. Barney Frank as being a funny guy, but he pointed out that another of the panelists, FedEx's Fred Smith, might prefer it if we mailed out the details to every American. Heh.)

I'm all for transparency, really I am, but it seems like a pretty pat cure for things. I have two initial concerns about Schmidt's idea, and these objections typify my reluctance to cite transparency as a quick and easy answer.

First, how far does transparency extend? It's one thing to see a line in the list of federal expenditures that says, "$223M - Funding for support of Revillagigedo-Gravina multi-modal transportation infrastructure," and another for someone to call it the Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere." The first looks perfectly supportable, the second is ridiculous. It's not clear that a list of all bailout expenditures would have included $18B of bonuses for Wall Street executives.

Second, who figures out what these things really mean? As Old Media (costly digging out of information) is replaced with New Media (pictures of Britney Spears), there will be fewer people left to figure out that it really is a bridge of dubious usefulness. We could argue that bloggers will ferret out this information (for free!), but, unless it's picked up by the relatively few sites that get major traffic, that's unlikely to be a comprehensive solution.

This attitude, that transparency is a magic answer, is the major contention made by those who find Wikipedia a new paradigm of information. "You can see the edit history," they say, as if that's sufficient. Of course, that requires the reader to know that Fred419 can be trusted to enter only true information, while Spacebalz is notoriously unreliable.

As Anonymous said, Wikipedia does purport to be an encyclopedia. Its adherents claim even more: that it is a model for peer something-or-other. Anderson on founder Wales:

Today Wales is celebrated as a champion of Internet-enabled egalitarianism. He describes himself not as antielitist but as "anticredentialist." That's a key distinction. It means that amateurs can have as much to contribute as professionals and that talent can be found anywhere. Everyone predicted that mob rule would lead to chaos.

Instead it has led to what may prove to be the most powerful industrial model of the 21st century: peer production. Wikipedia is proof that it works, and Jimmy Wales is its prophet.

So when a defender writes, "Wikipedia is not a primary source, not a secondary source and again does not claim to be any of these," that is clearly untrue. Wikipedia is sold as this transcendent thing that elevates hoi polloi over experts, and claims that transparency is somehow better than accuracy. What this does is elevate data over information, and, frankly, what I'm looking for in a reference work is information.

[By the way, McIntyre had another post on the subject in which he posits a conversation between a skeptic and a believer - very entertaining.]

2 comments:

Gregory Kohs said...

I can't believe you'd fall into that claptrap of calling Jimmy Wales "founder".

You know that Dr. Larry Sanger brought the wiki software to the table, coined the name "Wikipedia", and served as editor in chief of the project for its first, formative year, correct?

Then why would you bestow the honorific on Wales? Try "co-founder" in the future.

Androcass said...

Point taken. I am aware of the "settled controversy" concerning Wikipedia's creation, but didn't want to wade into that issue in this post.

I probably should have in that it makes the laudatory enthusiasm surrounding Wales to be even more ridiculous, as we are treated to hearing about his awards and even his romantic breakups. Not only is he not a prophet, he's a self-aggrandizing one at that.

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