Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Well, It's Another Year

Hope you had a good holiday, as you celebrate it, and a good new year. The end of the year came with no layoffs here, but my thoughts go out to my friends Patti Cole and Teshia Morris, who went down in the wreckage of the Washington Times as a complete newspaper rather than a competitor to Politico, Roll Call, whatever. If you happen to have any copy editing jobs open...

The Financial Times on Saturday ran a long analysis piece on Wikipedia, from which I will excerpt because some people might encounter a subscription wall:

"In spite -- or perhaps because -- of its success, Wikipedia is proving slow to adapt. Even relatively simple ideas aimed at reinforcing its basic quality and reliability have turned out to be hard to push through....

"'There's this almost religious zeal among Wikipedians that everybody has an equal role to play in the system,' says Larry Sanger, who co-founded the site with [Jimmy] Wales but fell out with him over direction of the system.

"Not that there seems much chance of a competitor displacing Wikipedia. As a charity that does not look to revenues, it hardly presents an attractive target for the Internet's other established powers....

"Any critique of Wikipedia's fundamental quality has to begin with an acknowledgement: In the field of supposedly objective reference information, there are no absolutes.

"'How many publications in human history can you trust?' asks Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist... and a Wikimedia Foundation adviser. "All have been subject to some disinformation that has been put in there by the powerful; disinformation has been a nromal part of human reality forever.' Idealists such as Mr. Newmark argue that, freed from the inherent flaws of publications dominated by a narrow range of interests, Wikipedia could become 'more reliable than anything we've ever seen.'

Yet even optimists such as he agree with the more sceptical observers on this: that, in terms of reliability and service, Wikipedia still has a long way to go. ... It points to a fundamental tension at the heart of Wikipedia that has stalled its development. Founded on an ideal of complete openness, any adjustment that seems to favor one group of contributors over another can seem like a betrayal of principle....

"The idea that experts should have a superior status is a taboo, guaranteed to produce a strong backlash. For a site -- Wikipedia prefers 'community' -- founded on ideas of radical egalitarianism, it smacks of revisionism. Yet even some enthusiastic supporters say there is no alternative in the long run. 'You need experts balanced by citizens, and vice versa,' says Mr. Newmark....

"While this struggle over the south of the Internet's most successful experiment in user participation rages, the watchword for visitors to Wikipedia will remain the same: caveat lector -- or, as the site itself helpfully translates, 'Let the reader beware.'"

And so here we are once again waiting for Pure Communism to emerge out of socialism, War Communism, whatever. It never has before, but always each generation will be the one that, empowered with new tools and new understanding, finally gets it right. I guess if my generation hadn't been through this in the '60s, it wouldn't be so bothersome. Newmark is right in that any reference is flawed; I would hate to read an encyclopedia from the 1930s or 1950s on any number of issues involving difference in races, for example. But, I'm sorry, of course experts should have a superior status in areas involving their expertise, and anything that wishes to be taken seriously as a reference needs to publicly recognize that it is calling upon experts, and needs to be led by people who are expert in evaluating experts.

The funny thing is, Wikipedia in so many aspects is, despite my occasional rants about it, reliable. I could check any 10 entries on department stores and never find a thing seriously wrong, and thanks to the fact that someone out there has, say, a Jones Store Jones, there is a record of the history of the Kansas City store that would never have merited being published on paper except in a history of department stores that might or might not be easily available. No other single reference would include Doctor Einstein and Jo Grant, the companion of the Third Doctor. But as long as Wikipedia says "we are the universal encyclopedia" and "anyone can contribute to anything," it contradicts itself. It wants to be two things at the same time.

The OED experienced such growing pains -- and the OED also was founded upon submissions from hither and yon. In that sense, Wikipedia's idea is not that radical, with the exception of the elimination of a Smoke-Filled Room at the top in which the final decisions were made. That elimination, though, is another expression of the Link Economy, in which all links, all ideas, are theoretically equal; that theory led newspapers to go after ever-non-monetizable massive numbers of hits regardless of who or where they were. And that brings us to the Washington Post ombudsman's column of Sunday, which will be the next post.

1 comment:

daniel said...

Interesting… I might try some of this on my blog, too. It’s quite interesting how you sometimes stop being innovative and just go for an accepted solution without actually trying to improve it… you make a couple of good points

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