Over the past few months, I’ve been collecting newspaper and magazine articles about the phenomenon of Wikipedia. (I’ve myself written two blog posts on Wikipedia here and here). Prominent among the Wikipedia critics is Seth Finkelstein, a consulting programmer who does technology journalism on the side and publishes columns in the Guardian. Seth’s criticism is largely related to the politics of getting people to work for free. The Register has published many news and analysis articles critical of Wikipedia, such as this, this, this, and many others. The Register points out the many flaws in Wikipedia’s editing system, and has been critical of what it terms the cult of Wikipedia.
A critic who takes a somewhat different and perhaps more holistic view is Jason Scott, famous for running TEXTFILES.COM. Jason Scott has written many critical pieces on Wikipedia, such as this and this. He’s given three famous speeches about Wikipedia: The Great failure of Wikipedia (transcript), Mythapedia, and Brickipedia. Scott, who gave Wikipedia a try for some time and has experience with the MediaWiki software, says that Wikipedia employs “child labor” and compares it to a casino. Scott also hits on a powerful point: that it is precisely the canonicity and first-go reference nature of Wikipedia combined with the speed at which edits become visible that forms the “crack” for people to edit the site (a point he explores in depth in his Mythapedia speech).
A somewhat more distanced critic of Wikipedia is Nicholas Carr. Carr occasionally talks about Wikipedia on his blog, and his entries on Wikipedia are rarely full of undiluted optimism and admiration. For instance, his blog post on the centripetal web talks about how the Web, instead of becoming decentralized, is becoming systematically more concentrated towards fewer sites — the prime example of such a site being Wikipedia. In a later blog post titled All hail the information triumvirate!, Carr talks about how the Web, Google, and Wikipedia have come to acquire a fairly dominant position in many people’s daily life and work.
And then there’s Wikipedia’s co-founder, Larry Sanger, who left the project in 2002 after spearheading it for a little over a year. In October 2007, Sanger started a new encyclopedia project called Citizendium, The People’s Compendium, that recently crossed 10,000 articles. Sanger, who did a doctorate in philosophy, has been watching and writing about Wikipedia, and he recently came out with this philosophical paper in the Episteme journal. The paper uses what appears to be epistemological reasoning, at least part of which boils down to the idea that since experts are needed to judge the accuracy of Wikipedia, Wikipedia hasn’t managed to get rid of expertise. (Brock Read at the Chronicle wrote a short piece mentioning Sanger’s paper).
Of course, this hardly completes the list of Wikipedia critics. There’s Wikipedia Watch, started by Daniel Brandt, a confirmed Wikipedia critic. There’s the Wikipedia Review. There’s Robert McHenry, former Britannica editor-in-chief, who has written pieces critical of Wikipedia such as this and this. And there’s the self-described anti-Web-2.0 polemicist Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur. One of the Wikipedia-critical pieces that often gets quoted is Digital Maoism: The hazards of the new online collectivism by Jaron Lanier.
Does the criticism matter?
Does criticism of Wikipedia serve any purpose (constructive or destructive) other than being an excuse to fill journal columns and blog space (I might note that the critical articles I wrote about Wikipedia have driven the most traffic to my blog)? it is hard to say. I want to argue here that it does not at least serve the obvious purpose of keeping potential readers away from Wikipedia.
My reason here is simple: the cost in terms of time, money, and effort, of accessing and using Wikipedia are just so low that any kind of cost-benefit analysis is simply too much of a long stretch to be done credibly. Secondly, the hidden costs of using Wikipedia are rarely borne by the user himself or herself, or are borne with what is an extremely low probability. Even if I were to believe the point made by Jason Scott and Nick Carr that the growing monopoly of Wikipedia in terms of information is not a good thing and our own laziness is what gives Wikipedia that power, such a belief is rarely enough to stop me from going and looking up the Wikipedia entry anyway.
I don’t have access to Wikipedia’s usage logs, approximate statistics are provided by wikigeist and various other Internet usage measurement services. At the time of writing, Wikigeist claims that the Wikipedia main page was viewed more than 200,000 times in the past one hour, while the hundredth entry, one on Google Earth, was viewed 475 times. Various estimates of Wikipedia usage put the number of daily pageviews in the hundreds of millions, and some studies have indicated that for a given topic with both a Britannica entry and a Wikipedia entry, the Wikipedia entry is consulted 200 times more often. The stats.grok.se service reveals how many times a particular article was viewed; the Wikipedia article on Barack Obama, for instance, was viewed four million times in January 2009, while the Wikipedia article on “normal subgroup” (a mathematical term) was viewed 2962 times in January 2009 (for some contrast, the groupprops article on normal subgroup has been viewed fewer than 1000 times in the past year).
More telling than the sheer number of pageviews, though, is the increasing extent to which I find people not even bothering to remember information knowing that they can “find it on Wikipedia.” Here are some anecdotal examples: in many recent discussions, a friend took out an IPhone to consult a Wikipedia entry to check a point; in a discussion where a friend told me about a certain kind of mollusk that eats its own brain, he told me that for reference I could Google it and follow the link to Wikipedia; even mathematical talks seem to have parts that say, “Wikipedia defines … as …”, despite the admittedly poor treatment of mathematics in Wikipedia. Again, I think this is largely because it is so easy and quick to use Wikipedia that its many obvious disadvantages pale in comparison to the speed and ease of use.
And yet the criticism may help
The criticism of Wikipedia does little to detract potential users from using it for quick reference. By and large, it does little to change Wikipedia’s policies either, in so far as what the critics are critical of is not something that some single entity at Wikipedia can change. However, such criticism can go some way in dampening the enthusiasm of people who edit Wikipedia, and in preventing people from citing Wikipedia.
For instance, Middlebury College forbade students from citing Wikipedia for history articles. This measure was severely criticized in the blogosphere, and adjectives such as “Luddite” were used to describe it. Others have argued that Wikipedia is a good “starting point” for research but people should follow through and cite the original sources. I personally think this is good policy. Actual citation of Wikipedia articles, in so far as it does occur, should follow robust citation conventions using stable versions (i.e., a link to the version of the article at the time the citation was made should be provided, rather than simply a link to the latest version of the article, which could be significantly different from the version at the time). Since citation policy is, in general, decided by fewer people, and since it involves work that generally takes more time (writing papers), I suspect that this is indeed achievable. (Wikipedia itself has various pages, such as this one, that describe how to research with Wikipedia).
Hyperlinking from blogs could follow a similar policy. Tim Bray’s post on linking describes the dilemma of linking to Wikipedia versus linking to the original source, as well as his own way of handling the dilemma. Again, since the number of people who write blogs (well, at least blogs that get read) is considerably fewer than the number of people who use the Internet for reference, there is again a possibility that writings critical of Wikipedia can influence the behavior of bloggers. One concrete step in this direction would be if people linking to Wikipedia articles do so only after reading the article, and indicate whether the link is due to a specific point made in the article, or just as background reference. If the link is to a specific point in the article, linking to a stable version might be desirable.
The other way writings critical of Wikipedia could influence Wikipedia is in terms of the influence they exert on people wondering whether to devote time and effort to Wikipedia. In general, people put in effort on a volunteer project only if the benefits to them exceed the cost, and if writings critical of Wikipedia make people better aware of some of the costs and benefits, it could help them make more informed decisions. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether this impact will be positive or negative on the whole. The problem here is similar to a problem highlighted by research of Michael Kremer and made popular in an article by Steven Landsburg: the more we make careful people refrain from a potentially dangerous activity, the more control the careless people get over it (the argument was originally made in the context of sex and AIDS). In this case, the more that careful and conscientious editors are put off Wikipedia, the more it’ll happen that the careless, sloppy, or partisan editors will take the reins. That’s because the importance of Wikipedia as a reference is so great that there’ll always be people lining up to edit it.
That this possibility is not merely hypothetical follows from the fact that many companies and high-profile individuals actually expend considerable resources maintaining the quality of entries on themselves, while subject-matter experts in an area work hard to check the entries in the subject. For instance, in the Chronicle piece Can Wikipedia make the grade?, Brock Read says:
But as the encyclopedia’s popularity continues to grow, some
professors are calling on scholars to contribute articles to
Wikipedia, or at least to hone less-than-inspiring entries in the
site’s vast and growing collection. Those scholars’ take is simple: If
you can’t beat the Wikipedians, join ’em.
This leads to the interesting possibility that writings critical of Wikipedia may well have a negative effect in the following sense: people who might well be the most careful and conscientious editors are also the ones most likely to get put off editing Wikipedia by the arguments, and other editors get more leeway. As a result, the quality deteriorates somewhat, but the deterioration in quality is so small negligible to the overall ease of use of Wikipedia that people still continue to use it and link to it: they just get more biased articles, less accurate facts, and slightly more instances of vandalism. Of course, this bad outcome depends on the assumption that the people likely to be put off Wikipedia are the ones who may have become its best editors.
Despite my contention that criticism of Wikipedia does little to alter how much people read it, I doubt that too many people are loyal to Wikipedia. People’s loyalty to Wikipedia usually boils down to this mental algorithm: “Go to Google, type the term, search. If a Wikipedia entry shows up, follow it, otherwise, follow whatever else looks relevant.” Estimates suggest that between 50% and 70% of Wikipedia’s traffic is driven by search engines. This suggests that if search engines start devaluing Wikipedia content, the default mental algorithm that many people have will have to be revised: either the search engine or Wikipedia will suffer.
More importantly, what drives people to Wikipedia is, on the whole, a certain kind of brand recognition — a comfort that since this is Wikipedia, and they’ve been here before, they’ll be able to get the information they need with ease. But brand recognition alone can survive only in the absence of competing brands. If people find a single, consistent source that comes up along with Wikipedia among the top few entries, they are likely to give that source a try, at least after they start recognizing it.
In conclusion, I believe that criticism of Wikipedia can help in limited ways: it can make people more careful when citing and linking, and it can be informative to people before they get started on the job of editing Wikipedia (though this, as I pointed out, can be a two-edged sword). But a serious decrease or diversion of usage (and consequently, of editing effort) from Wikipedia can happen only in the presence of a competing resource that offers at least similar levels of ubiquity, ease of use and quick reference, and probably visibility in search engines.
CORRECTION: As Jon Awbrey noted in the comments, Wikipedia Review was not started by Daniel Brandt. The contents of the blog post have been changed to reflect the correction.