Wikipedia: experts are us

Published on MondeDiplo online, by Mathieu O’Neil, May 2009.

Wikipedia’s egalitarian ethic and cooperative process have led to accusations that ‘verifiability’ is replacing accuracy. But expertise is alive and well on the online encyclopaedia – as long as you know where to look.

The internet was invented by “hackers” – computer engineers and students influenced by the counter-culture, and therefore resistant to traditional forms of authority and hierarchy …

… ‘Ruthless precision in thinking’:

The Wikipedia development model, defined as “commons-based peer production” by Yochai Benkler, requires a high degree of autonomy of participants, who self-attribute their tasks. Some participants may deceive others, or deceive themselves, as to their true level of competence; but Benkler reckons that peer review or the law of statistical averages (provided the number of participants is high enough) will be sufficient to regulate flawed self-assessments (3). 

Mass peer production, based on transparent communication between participants, cannot abide the isolated stance of the traditional expert. Wikipedia’s co-founder and chief spokesperson, Jimmy Wales, wrote in June 2008 that an open encyclopaedia requires a “ruthless precision in thinking” because, in contrast to the “comfortable writers of a classic top-down encyclopaedia”, people working in open projects are liable to be “contacted and challenged if they have made a flawed argument or based [their] conclusions on faulty premises” (4). What this boils down to is that in Wikipedia expertise is no longer embodied in a person but in a process, in the aggregation of many points of view, the wisdom of the crowd.

This is why the inclusion of draft articles, known as “stubs”, no matter how rough, is encouraged: there is always a chance that they could be collectively edited and become pearls of wisdom. For wisdom to emerge, the crowd needed to be there in the first place. To ensure that recruitment was massive and remained constant, the Wikipedia experience had to be fun and immediate: the key concept is “You can edit this page right now”. The advantage of this development model is that projects can improve very rapidly. For example, it has been empirically shown that the rigour and diversity of a Wikipedia article improves following a reference to it in the mass media, which brings in new contributors.

In principle, all facts presented in Wikipedia should be sourced, and presented in a neutral way. And the official criterion for determining which topics are encyclopaedic and should be featured is “notability”. What the notion covers, or how it is applied, is not always clear though. For example, why are relatively junior North American communication professors, Alex Halavais and Jason Mittell, featured in Wikipedia? Whereas more “prominent” academics such as Susan Herring and Steve Jones are not, even though they have published numerous influential books and papers, and are editors of leading academic journals in the field of new media. Halavais believes he owes his presence in Wikipedia to two factors: he presented a paper at Wikimania (Wikipedia’s annual conference) in 2006; and, as an experiment, introduced erroneous information in 13 Wikipedia articles to gauge how much time would be required for them to be corrected (5) … (full long text).

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