Wikipedia, communities and consensus knowledge

Opinion is still divided over the whole ‘wisdom of crowds’ idea. But the occasional inaccuracy (and somewhat more frequent bad spelling and grammar) does nothing to deter thousands of users, including myself, who want their answers quickly and conveniently.

BoingBoing pointed out an email debate between Jimmy ‘Wikipedia’ Wales and Dale Hoiberg, editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and it pretty much encapsulates the two sides of the debate, between the old and new models of knowledge base creation. I’ll not bother trying to quote some good bits – go read it, it’ll only take ten minutes or so.

For obvious reasons, I can’t take a professional stance in this debate. But I can take a consumer stance, and that is to say that, provided I’m after basic information on a subject that isn’t particularly contentious, politically loaded or technically complicated, I will and do use Wikipedia as a quick go-to reference. If I want more depth, I do a lot more searching off site, and probably in books too.

Traditional encyclopaedias have value and, as Hoiberg mentions, that value is the paid expertise of its contributors. But if I want expert knowledge, I’ll probably go looking beyond an encyclopaedia anyway. They act as gateways to further knowledge, in my opinion, and for that reason Wikipaedia does just as good a job in many cases.

Furthermore, Wikipedia is far better for information on cultural ephemera (the Britannica was unlikely to ever have an article explaining the origins of the O_RLY? owl picture, for example) and the sort of data that there are no ‘paid experts’ for. And I think that anyone with sense, plus a few months experience on the internet in general, will take everything they read anywhere with a pinch of salt – even in ‘proper’ encyclopaedias and text books.

The internet has, in a very short time, made the mutability and transience of ‘facts’ an observable phenomenon – it is becoming more obvious that authority is derived from the control of sources, and that can only be a good thing. ‘Reality’, if such a thing can be said to exist at all, is something derived from consensus – just ask your local propagandist or tabloid media baron.

So there’s something to be said for community-created knowledge bases. But I’m still in futurism/multiverse imagination mode at the moment … so I find myself wondering if the model could extend – how about a country (real or virtual) that has a codex of regulations maintained in this way?

Similar things already occur in MMORPGs and on large forums – there are unwritten but implicit codes of conduct and good behaviour in almost all places where humans gather together. So why not write them down? Create a place where they can be transcribed, expanded, tested, debated, defamed?

It seems to me that wikis already embody a fundamental aspect of the functioning of human societies, at least at the smaller scales. We achieve consensus without the need for figureheads and arbiters, deferring to those who have the knowledge or the dedication to the cause. In the wiki model, there is no reason to resent the ‘control’ of the core faction of editors – if you believe you are more informed, then you can attempt to become oneof them. If your research is good, or your ideas chime with the people at large, you can change the codex – you can hack that local version of reality.

Or, of course (and this is the beauty of the whole metaverse idea, for me) you can always just go off and start your own reality if the local one doesn’t suit you. Unless you’re a real way-out marginal crackpot, you’re sure to gather a few followers and adherants. Open-source distributed synthetic worlds will enable you and your crew to set up your own virtual fiefdom where your rules and your reality can hold primacy. The territory available to you will expand as you gather more followers (and hence more Mips) to create the need for it – so no need to go to war over ideology or territory…

…economic wars of supply and demand are another matter (as is the notion that all wars are wars of supply and demand), but that’s a scenario I need to research and imagine a little more.

[By the way, I am assuming that readers have realised that a lot of the speculation in this post (and others), while based as far as possible on observable trends and phenomena, is:

  • purely speculation, largely aimed at boiling up fictional ideas to write stories about (or in), and having a bit of fun;
  • admittedly (and cheerfully) biased towards the sort of future I imagine I’d rather like to come about, while compromising with what my cynical heart believes is actually likely to happen;
  • posted here in public in the hope that people might pitch in with refutations of obvious flaws that i have missed, or simply objections and rhetoric for the fun of it.

Having stated what I assume to be obvious, I shall leave the musings above for you to attack or ignore as you see fit – but I’d far rather you said something, even if it is incredibly negative. Pretend it’s an online collaborative world-building workshop or something… šŸ˜‰ ]

2 thoughts on “Wikipedia, communities and consensus knowledge”

  1. The ultimate decider in the debate will be people voting with their feet and I suspect on that front Wikipedia is the big winner over Britannica.

    I grew up with a set of ye old Britannica and it was very good but I’ll take Wikipedia any day. Not only for immediacy and conveinence (which are *big* pluses) but also because it serves as a gateway to further knowledge. There’s always a few helpful links in each entry, sometimes hordes of them. I can’t click on something in an dead tree Encylopedia entry and go elsewhere.

    And at least Wikipedia doesn’t employ pushy salespeople to ring your doorbell. The Britannica salesman sold my dad a set of Encylopedias he couldn’t afford by trying to make him feel guilty about not providing for his six year old son’s future. I always felt a little bad about that. Another plus in Wikipedia’s column as far as I’m concerned.

  2. Perhaps I’m a bit late on the chime in, but allow me to do so anyhow.

    There is one big advantage that can’t be made up for by all the paid experts in the world: Wikipedia is virtually self-updating.

    Once you write an article for a print-and-spine encyclopedia, it’s done. It’s in print and in homes and offices. They continue to be referred to 5 years later, despite new discoveries, because the set cost so much in the first place. Ultimately, that can lead to a type of historical fact/present inaccuracy problem which can be great, anthropologically, 50 or 100 years from now, but not entirely useful at the moment.

    Enter the digital knowledge basin called Wikipedia, and sister and daughter sites there of. On there, although there are the pitfalls of the occasionally as-yet-unwritten article or the wrong person stealing the pen, generally, you have up-to-date articles, balanced debate on inclusions and depth of subject, and often some of the most active and educated people of each respective field who wants to make sure people get it right when they look for knowledge.

    How many Encyclopedia can you look up the current Iraq war in? What about the Fijian Coup? Or the Russian spy poisoning scandal? None…yet. You must wait until the information is digested, studied, and complied by the ‘paid experts’, then it goes to editor, makes the cut or gets the axe, goes to print, then is on your shelf in the Encyclopedia _____ 2007-2008 Edition.

    OR, you can look it up today at Wikipedia, or similar, and be informed by historian and others, in a range of interest, who are following the events closely, and updating often, usually after breaking news, sometimes daily.

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