Seth Finkelstein kindly responds to my blog post Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter. Seth agrees with my basic point — it is hard to influence people away from either reading or editing Wikipedia. However, he entertains the hope that criticism might affect what he calls the “public intellectual” perspective of Wikipedia.
This is probably more likely, but the chances of this are dismal too. The digging up I’ve been doing of references to Wikipedia in books and writings suggests a fairly formulaic description of Wikipedia even by academic intellectuals who should know a lot more.
Here are the typical elements of a description of the online encyclopedia:
- History beginning: Jimbo Wales started out in 2000 with the idea of a free encyclopedia. They started a “top-down” “expert-led” project called Nupedia that produced few articles. Then, “somebody told Wales about wiki software” and they implemented it and the ordinary people started contributing. (The writers who research facts better usually highlight the co-founder controversy and the fact that the proposal for Wikipedia was originally made by Larry Sanger, many writers omit to mention this).
- Surprise, surprise, it works: Here’s the paradox. An encyclopedia with nobody in charge, with nobody getting paid and with people supplying volunteer time, is as accurate as Britannica, the expert-written encyclopedia (quote a Nature study by Jim Giles). Surprise, surprise, surprise. Then, use this to prove the favorite theory the author is expounding (this could be “intellectual commons”, “creative commons”, “produsage”, “commons-based peer production”, or some variant of that). (The writers who do more research usually mention that the study was investigative journalism rather than scientific research, and also mention Britannica’s repudiation and Nature’s response to those repudiations.)
- Wikipedia is not without its flaws (surprise, surprise, surprise). The most popular example here is the John Seigenthaler story. Some more serious researchers go so far as to mention other controversies such as the Essjay controversy.
- But the fact that anybody can edit Wikipedia is its greatest strength — because what can be undone can be done. Quote this study by researchers at MIT and IBM to prove the point, or talk about some specific anecdotal example.
There are few books written about the phenomenon of Wikipedia on the whole. Most references to Wikipedia are as part of books on something such as Web 2.0, user-generated content, the greatness of the Internet, and the above kind of treatment fits in well with the points the author is trying to make.
Among the authors who have praised Wikipedia but done a more in-depth analysis than the above, I can think of Clay Shirky (in his book Here comes everybody), Axel Bruns (in his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond: From Production to Produsage) and Chris Andersen (in his book The Long Tail). Though I think the presentations of each of these authors has ample deficiencies, I believe they’ve made some original contribution each in their analysis of Wikipedia. But the same cannot be said of a lot of people who give this simplistic presentation of Wikipedia, often stretching it out over several pages.
Why so much academic support for Wikipedia?
Contrast the legions of academics who write gloriously about Wikipedia, following and adding to the outline I’ve discussed above: Clay Shirky, Axel Bruns, Chris Andersen, Jonathan Zittrain (The Future of the Internet: and how to stop it), Lawrence Lessig (Code v 2), Cory Doctorow (Content), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks), Tapscott and Williams (Wikinomics), Tom Friedman (The World Is Flat) and many others. Contrast this with the much smaller number of authors who take a genuinely critical stand of Wikipedia: Andrew Keen (who describes his own book, The Cult of the Amateur, as a “polemic” as opposed to a serious and balanced presentation) and Nicholas Carr (The Big Switch). Other critics of Wikipedia, many of whose names I outlined in my earlier blog posts, typically content themselves with writing blog posts. It may also be noted that most of the critics aren’t academic intellectuals who work and teach at universities. There are some librarian critics, such as Karen Schneider, who wrote this piece among others critical of Wikipedia; there are also subject experts who write critically of Wikipedia’s treatment of their particular subjects. But this isn’t the same as academics who’re supposed to be experts on the Internet, collaboration, and emerging trends and on other things that Wikipedia is arguably about, offering cogent negative analyses of Wikipedia.
So why is there such an overwhelmingly strong academic support for Wikipedia?
I suspect this goes down to the way academics write books. A book by an academic, whether written for a select academic audience or for a borader audience, typically has a “point” or a “theme”, and most of the themes of books that include Wikipedia are supportive of some of the ideas for which Wikipedia is a poster child. For instance, if Yochai Benkler wants to write a book arguing for the power of commons-based peer production (CBPP), or Axel Bruns wants to describe the power of produsage, the best way to use Wikipedia is as a publicly visible and easy-to-appreciate example of this. This creates a selection bias for the author to pick those aspects of Wikipedia that further the point and ignore the aspects that do not. To add the appearance of a fair and balanced treatment, things like the Seigenthaler episode can be thrown in.
On the other hand, criticism of Wikipedia doesn’t generally add up to any big point or theme that is exciting to write a book about. At least, not yet. Perhaps, ten years down the line, somebody may write a book on how corporations and organization systemically exploit free labor to produce results, and once this kind of narrative starts gaining a foothold in academia, the standard Wikipedia tale will morph — instead of “Wikipedia is subject to vandalism; however, its openness to editing is its greatest strength” might become “although openness to editing is a strength, Wikipedia is subject to vandalism, edit wars, and a lot of unproductive disputes”. But in order for such a book to be written, the theme has to be big enough, or thick enough, to fill an academic book.
Another related factor is “academic herding” — the tendency of academics and intellectuals to herd together. Better wrong together than right alone, as the saying goes. We’ve often been told how financial herding (where different investors, brokers, and fund managers prefer to do the same things their peers are doing, for fear of standing out) precipitates market crises. I suspect that academics herd too. Currently, the herding tendency is towards singing the virtues of an uneasy amalgam of open source, free culture, user-generated content, participation, bottom-up, and a lot of buzzwords. I say “uneasy” because in principle, many of these are independent and a supporter of one may very well choose not to be a supporter of the other. In practice, they come in a bunch and self-appointed progressives like to bundle disparate things such as “the fight against restrictive copyright”, “enabling ordinary users to create content”, “the fight for opening up source code”, and the success of that specific thing called Wikipedia.
These things aren’t always unbundled. Seth Finkelstein and Jason Scott, among many others, while ardent critics of Wikipedia, have been supporters of many of the causes that usually come bundled with it, such as open source and using Creative Commons licenses. Nonetheless, I suspect that the bundling effects, along with herding effects, could be pretty strong.
Journalism on Wikipedia
Journalists such as Tom Friedman may be excused for giving a shallow treatment of Wikipedia in the four pages he devoted to it in his long book The World Is Flat. Nonetheless, some of the mistakes that Friedman makes are echoed sadly too often. One of these is to spend too much time interviewing the “person in charge” or the “people at the helm”. I’m guessing that journalists typically need to do this to get up to scratch, but interviewing people at the helm can be tricky for something like Wikipedia where nobody really is in charge.
Sincere and hardworking journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners such as Friedman and New Yorker writer Stacy Schiff, make painstaking efforts to interview people in charge of the encyclopedia. For this New Yorker piece, Stacy Schiff did an amazing amount of work interviewing people that the Wikimedia Foundation directed her to. Only, it turned out later that one of these people whom Jimbo Wales vouched for turned out to have faked his identity (this person was Essjay, who claimed to have several academic degrees but later turned out to be a college drop-out). That said, Schiff’s piece was probably among the best in a mainstream publication that I’ve seen, along with this New York Times Magazine piece, and some pieces in the Chronicle.
Less accomplished journalists (as well as some academics) make the usual gaffe of interviewing Jimbo Wales and then saying something like “Wales has the following plans for Wikipedia …”, as if Wales is responsible for the success of Wikipedia the same way a corporate entrepreneur is responsible for the success of his or her own enterprise. The following lines are only a slight exaggeration: “The sky is the limit for Wales. Having created the world’s biggest encyclopedia for free, Wales is now working on a free dictionary, free news, and a free resource for books and source text in the public domain.”
The implicit support that Wikipedia enjoys from academics and journalists will last for some time, despite the excellent efforts by some journalists and academics to go beyond the surface. To get a new academic perspective on Wikipedia, what is needed is a coherent theme or theoretical framework in which a negative assessment of Wikipedia can fit — and such a theme needs to overcome the herding and bundling tendencies seen in academia. To get a new journalistic perspective that is reflected in more than just a handful of thoroughly researched articles, we need enough prominent academics and other people in a position that they are likely to get interviewed by journalists looking to write an article on Wikipedia. Neither prospect seems immediately forthcoming.