Pulling Wikipedia’s Plug, cont’d.

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 fake Wikipedia bio of me featuring a photo of Curly Howard, I think I’ve emerged largely unharmed.

But I wanted to call attention to a reader comment which makes an excellent point my item did not–that, while both discussion forums and wikis are both 2.0 media types that give users a voice, they are very different products that produce very different types of information. Forums assemble individual voices on a topic. Wikipedia assembles collective knowledge from a group. Point taken.

The comment, from a guy named Greg, makes another point about the limits of the Wikipedia project. I think it’s a useful extention about the nature, and future, of Wikipedia.

So: At the risk of going so media-meta that I disappear into the back side of a Mobius strip, I print the comment, and my response to it, below.

The comment from Greg

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.–Greg

My response

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.–Craig Stoltz

Explore posts in the same categories: forums, Web 2.0, Wikipedia, wikis

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