Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Many hands make crappy work

What makes the story of the genesis of Wikipedia so delightful to those who distrust the experts of the world, is that the web-based "encyclopedia of the people" succeeded after its its founder gave up on Nupedia - the web-based "encyclopedia of experts", which had failed miserably. Why did it fail? Well, it's simple. "Nupedia wanted scholars to volunteer content for free".

And yet, its not so simple. Scholars give their work away for free most of the time. Its just that they tend to give their work to more established publishing houses or to a scholarly society that publishes research. When a scholar has their work reviewed, the reviewers tend to look at the quality of publications that accepted the work done more so than the actual quality of the work itself. So its no wonder to me why a start up like Nupedia had trouble getting submissions.

When it comes to Wikipedia, its hard for some folks not to bring up the notion of common people outsmarting the experts a la Wisdom of Crowds even though Wikipedia doesn't fulfill Surowiecki's four conditions of a "wise crowd". Its largely unsaid, but Wikipedia is thought to improve by means of a strange evolution-like process...

1. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can submit an article and it will be published.

2. Anyone, irrespective of expertise in or even familiarity with the topic, can edit that article, and the modifications will stand until further modified.

Then comes the crucial and entirely faith-based step:

3. Some unspecified quasi-Darwinian process will assure that those writings and editings by contributors of greatest expertise will survive; articles will eventually reach a steady state that corresponds to the highest degree of accuracy.

But in fact, the opposite occurs as noted by some of the stewards of Wikipedia:

DR: What about the 'collective intelligence' or 'collective wisdom' argument: That given enough authors, the quality of an article will generally improve? Does this hold true for Wikipedia?

EB: No, it does not. The best articles are typically written by a single or a few authors with expertise in the topic. In this respect, Wikipedia is not different from classical encyclopedias.

KN: Elian is right. Also, most of the short articles remain short and of rather poor content.

Jason Scott also backs this idea:

Wikipedia has what's called a "feature article". When an article achieves a certain level of quality, it is then put up as a featured article. There is actually a list on Wikipedia of articles that have been demoted from featured. Literally dozens of articles that once they hit featured status, they start to slowly actually degrade in quality, to the point that they lose their featured quality status and just become regular old articles again.
The transcript of Jason's presentation, The Great Failure of Wikipedia, does a masterful job of pulling back the curtain of the Wizard's Kingdom so all can see what actually goes on behind the scenes. It become evident that it is likely that Wikipedia will eat itself.

What I find so telling is that editorial access to Wikipedia is granted to those who have spent the most time working within Wikipedia in good standing. That these unseen folks have the final say on what goes on the pages within Wikipedia as opposed to actual experts who know each field doesn't sit well with me. Wikipedia is not "anti-credentialist" - it just doesn't recognized any credentials outside of Wikipedia.

Universities are in the business of awarding credentials to those who prove that they deserve them. It wouldn't surprise me if they make another attempt at Nupedia.

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