Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Source of All Information...Isn't?

Some believe that Wikipedia is falling off its pedestal:
Yet Wikipedia and its stated ambition to “compile the sum of all human knowledge” are in trouble. The volunteer workforce that built the project’s flagship, the English-language Wikipedia—and must defend it against vandalism, hoaxes, and manipulation—has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking. Those participants left seem incapable of fixing the flaws that keep Wikipedia from becoming a high-quality encyclopedia by any standard, including the project’s own. Among the significant problems that aren’t getting resolved is the site’s skewed coverage: its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy. Authoritative entries remain elusive. Of the 1,000 articles that the project’s own volunteers have tagged as forming the core of a good encyclopedia, most don’t earn even Wikipedia’s own middle-­ranking quality scores.

The main source of those problems is not mysterious. The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage...

The project seemed laughable or shocking to many. Wikipedia inherited and embraced the cultural expectations that an encyclopedia ought to be authoritative, comprehensive, and underpinned by the rational spirit of the Enlightenment. But it threw out centuries of accepted methods for attaining that. In the established model, advisory boards, editors, and contributors selected from society’s highest intellectual echelons drew up a list of everything worth knowing, then created the necessary entries. Wikipedia eschewed central planning and didn’t solicit conventional expertise. In fact, its rules effectively discouraged experts from contributing, given that their work, like anyone else’s, could be overwritten within minutes. Wikipedia was propelled instead by the notion that articles should pile up quickly, in the hope that one Borgesian day the collection would have covered everything in the world.
At best I've always considered Wikipedia only a good first stop; usually I'm for more interested in the sources for a particular article than I am in believing the article itself.


Ellen K said...

Wikipedia in theory is a great idea. In practice it's only as good as the people who participate. When you put people in charge of controlling the flow of information, they impose their worldview on the final entries. I have found some very biased and incorrect information regarding art and artists. When contacted, the information is changed, but with a population of students who go to Wikipedia first and assume it's infallible it's creating serious flaws in their education.

allen (in Michigan) said...

The value of such an "open" source of information though is that the bias of a given author is offset by bias in the other direction.

Commercial sources like Encyclopedia Britannica also display bias but changes to improve accuracy have to be filtered through the people responsible for the original article. If they're not concerned with inserting their bias then what's the recourse?

My biggest knock on Wikipedia is the inconsistency of entries. Some are comprehensive. Others of a very similar nature are sketchy to non-existent.