Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug

There are many good reasons to deplore Wikipedia, not the least of which is its authors’ cultish smuggery about the righteousness of their cause and the rightness of their content.

Of course there is also its internecine complexity of processes. The documentation tracing the petty bitchery about an entry is often longer than the entry that is produced. The international collectivist negotiation over matters of “fact” is beginning to remind me of the United Nations, but without the fancy New York headquarters.

A recent post by e-health blogger John Grohol left me steaming anew about the nature of the entire enterprise.

The piece details a series of exchanges between a Wikipedia editor and Gilles Frydman, head of the non-profit cancer support community ACOR. The issue was the collective’s refusal to permit links to health-related support groups.

The post includes only one side of the story, and that filtered through the articulate vitriol of Grohol. So I can’t vouch for the details of the exchange. But it is accurate that Wikipedia does not permit links to support groups. [See relevant policy excerpt at end of entry.] On reflection, this astonishes me:

1. Wikipedia is designed to harness the collective intelligence of many individuals, an example of the the classic web 2.0 “wisdom of the crowds.”

2. Online support forums are designed to harness the collective intelligence of many individuals, the classic web 2.0 “wisdom of the crowds.”

Wikipedia leverages the wisdom of the crowds one way. Online support forums do so another way. But Wikipedia won’t assign value to the other–in fact as a matter of policy it pointedly excludes it. Which is to say: The power of the many is a powerful force to disseminate knowledge–except when it’s not.

The hypocrisy is remarkable. To cite just one sad example: The Wikipedia entry on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig/Stephen Hawking disease) is workmanlike. It includes references to mainstream groups like the ALS Foundation. It even includes, god help us, a link to that font of scientific dispassion, the Ride for Life.

But it is utterly silent on the powerful ALS community of PatientsLikeMe, an unusually ambitious patient (and provider) experience- and data-sharing site. To say it serves folks who need to know about ALS far better than Wikipedia–and that it offers a greater amount of authoritative current knowledge–is to understate.

Yet Wikipedia excludes it because it is an online support group, not because it is unworthy. Wikipedia has decided–for expedience? for ideological reasons? for self-interest?–to exclude information not on the merits of an individual source but due to its information class.

It’s a sort of info-bigotry, an attempt to exclude a minority deemed less worthy based entirely on class, not merits. And Wikipedia is itself part of a larger class, web 2.0, which itself suffers similar discrimination!

If we are to exclude one style of responsibly gathering collective wisdom, should we exclude them all? Or–here’s an idea–maybe we should judge individual sources on their merits.

The trouble is, so many people around the world link to Wikipedia, it rides at the top of nearly every topic search results page. This only increases its use and ubiquity, if not hegemony. Its decisions to include and exclude data are magnified across the information universe.

I’m wondering if it’s time for concerned web citizens to stop linking to Wikipedia. If this were to catch on, it would have the effect of diminishing its ubiquity, allowing it to recede to its proper role: a useful but limited, and often deeply flawed, source of information. Just like an online support group, only bigger, and with a chip on its shoulder.

I know, of course, that this is trying to sweep back the sea with a broom. To draw on that U.N. metaphor, maybe it’s time for a different kind of collective action: Wikipedia out of the web. The web out of Wikipedia.

See a continuing conversation about the role of social media in health at this recent post at The Health Care Blog.

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[Wikipedia linking policy on support groups. Note the sniff of condescension implicit in the second paragraph. And note how the Awareness and Fundraising Events sections in its medical articles clearly violate this policy!:]

“Wikipedia’s external links policy and the specific guidelines for medicine-related articles do not permit the inclusion of external links to non-encyclopedic material, particularly including: patient support groups, personal experience/survivor stories, internet chat boards, e-mail discussion groups, recruiters for clinical trials, healthcare providers, fundraisers, or similar pages.

“Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, not an advertising opportunity or a support group for patients or their families. Please do not re-insert links that do not conform to the standard rules.”

Explore posts in the same categories: crowdsourcing, Health 2.0, Uncategorized, Web 2.0, Wikipedia, wikis, wisdom of the crowds

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11 Comments on “Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug”

  1. John Grohol Says:

    Hey Craig, thanks for the comment on the blog entry over at e-Patients.net, where we blog about patient “empowerment” and participatory medicine. I think you forgot to link to the actual entry, so here it is:

    http://www.e-patients.net/archives/2008/04/wikipedias_arca.html

    To me, it just seems like an incredibly odd and short-sighted restriction. You can link to practically anything else on Wikipedia, but support groups, oh no! We can’t have that!

    Here’s a completely random example of why such restrictions are ridiculous and links are all over the map at Wikipedia. The featured article on Wikipedia (English) today is about Vasa. Vasa has links to 4 external websites at present–

    The Vasa Museum (good)
    Vasa’s revival (a report, good)
    Vasa Stability — A Flash game in Swedish (why is this link in the English encyclopedia?)
    SVT Play — Video clips of the recovery of the Vasa, again in Swedish

    So Flash games and foreign language links are okay, but a support group remains off limits, because although you can learn something from them, you might actually have to register (sometimes) in order to read them. (Many support groups do not have a registration requirement to read them, however.)

  2. Jon Says:

    You make a compelling case for a change of policy, or at least the possibility for exemption in certain cases. That said, I don’t quite see how that particular issue warrants the wholesale damnation of the wikipedia project. The wikipedia rules are not set in stone, they are simply widely-agreed-upon principles. If you care so much, why not take the case there and win people over where it matters?


  3. […] Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug « Web 2.Oh. . .really? (tags: wikipedia) […]

  4. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Jon–

    Thanks much for your comment. People have suggested this to me before–why don’t I participate in the system to help fix it?

    The petulant response is that I didn’t create the problem, I shouldn’t have to solve it.

    The more considered response is that the problem may at this point be unsolvable.

    I think the root problem with Wikipedia is its giantism.

    Wikis can indeed be powerful ways to gather and improve the quality of information (though the usability is often lousy). But the ambition to use a wiki platform to create a publicly authored encyclopedia of. . .everything is revealing itself to be a fool’s errand. The project’s increasing complexity, bureaucracy, functional opacity and persistent scandal was predicted by critics early on and now of course seem inevitable.

    I can’t help but feel that Jimmy Wales’ vanity–combined with the good intentions of enthusiasts, collectivists and utopians who do the work–has resulted in an enormous mess which has come to dominate the web. This is not a public service.

  5. Greg Says:

    Hi Craig,

    I am something of a wikipedia apologist, but I think you are missing a key difference between the goals of wikipedia and support forums (if not the success of said goals). Wikipedia tries to be a generic and unbaised report on a topic backed up with citations from more credible sources. Whereas in a forum, an individual is forced to figure out which “opinion” is best for him or her to use. Yes a forum may have citations from more credible sources, but there is no guidelines or ideology to encourage it. So, two different beasts, no one inherently better than the other.

    Of course wikipedia isn’t the the best place for any research past scratching the surface, there is no doubt of that. It’s a starting point at best, and everyone would do well to remember it. One should be checking the citations for detail. But alas, the ideas of primary, secondary, and tertiary research are being lost. You can certainly lay a bit of blame at wikipedia’s feet by not being more clear in its mission, but there are other forces at play as well.

    One other thing wikipedia is not is a resource for, and that’s finding other websites related to a topic. The goal as I understand it is to facilitate finding other supposedly more credible and pointed bits of information. To find whole sites… that’s google’s job.

  6. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Greg–

    Thanks much for your good comment. You’re absolutely right that forums and wikis (including Wikipedia) are two very different beasts roaming the odd landscape of 2.0land. We should not expect the same–or even more than a slice of “reality,” whatever that means–from both media types.

    Your points about the limitations of Wikipedia–that it’s not great for researching beyond the surface, that it’s at best a starting point, that one should check citations etc.–are good to hear.

    I will have to go back and look (in Wikipedia, maybe. Ahem) and compare this to what I recall to be the original claims and intent for the project. I recall an article , I believe in Wired, featuring Mssr. Wales, who spoke in quite utopian terms about the power and magnitude of the project and its vast potential for creating a well informed citizenry. Certainly I’ve read that since, and hear versions of it from folks who participate earnestly in the project. I don’t often hear the caveats you speak of very often from people who support the project.

    All of which leads to a question that has been dogging me: whether it’s simply a case that (like any good 2.0 project) once turned over to creators and the audience, Wikipedia has become far different from what anybody anticipated.

    For worse or better (I argue the former, others will argue that latter) Wikipedia commands center stage of the encyclopedic information universe right now. I’m beginning to wonder whether, given the flaws I mentioned in my piece and you cite in your comment, whether a big, visible disclaimer should appear on page one, or at the top of every entry. There is an acknowledgment of its limitations on various “about” pages, but I’m guessing Wikipedia’s metrics show that a tiny proportion of users spend much time with those pages.

    A clearer statement of limits and approptiate uses would be a public service. It would enhance transparency. I hope these are principles to which the contributors to Wikipedia remain committed.


  7. […] Last week’s entry about Wikipedia–titled with characteristic subtlety “Wikipedia: Time to Pull the Plug“– resulted in the expected crapspatter in wikiville. But since nobody has created a […]


  8. This same issue occured on another page, also for a health sites, and ironically on the Health 2.0 page which by the nature of its subject matter needs to provide examples of this type of support group (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_2.0). However perhaps there is a way around this, simply reference an alternative wiki that provides lists of sites (like http://health20.org/wiki/Health_2.0_Companies for example). Its a valid reference and cannot be removed. Furthermore, by promoting other good wiki sites, perhaps we’ll provide some competitiomn for wikipedia itself!


  9. […] Lenin of the Internet era, socializing everything in its path (minus the serfdom and unpaid labor- that’s for […]

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