On Wikipedia: part 3

Ran across this article from Boston Review by Evgeny Morozov on Wikipedia.  (Sheds some light on the troubles and tribulations written about in parts one and two).


This creates enormous knowledge gaps in Wikipedia and further alienates well-informed subject experts, particularly those who may know much that is hard to verify online. The subject experts—who usually have great demands on their time, as well—are forced to engage in pointless intellectual debates with Wikipedia’s bureaucratic guardians, many of whom are persuaded only by hyperlinks, not cogent arguments. This raises participation costs—busy experts quickly give up and leave the site—and creates tension between “experts with an attitude” and “verifiability freaks,” which partially explains those gaps.

Early on, Wikipedia’s utter disregard for intellectual elites was not obvious, because there was more than enough work for users of all backgrounds: even placing a comma in the right place makes the project better.

But this also means that the bar for improving the encyclopedia is set very low. Thus the standard criticism of Wikipedians: they are obsessed with popular culture and less equipped to document the high-brow. The 711-word entry on nouvelle vague filmmaker Claude Chabrol, for example, is much less impressive than the 1867-word article onTransformers-director Michael Bay.

However, high-brow entries also suffer because Wikipedia’s economics of knowledge creation are fundamentally unsound. As long as an hour of research yields less “Wikipedia value” than an hour spent planting one hundred commas, few enthusiasts will do the intellectual heavy-lifting. Besides, one cannot learn much about Chabrol from a cursory Google search. Thus, the real tragedy of the Wikipedia method is that it reduces intellectual contributions to such granular units that writing a 2000-word entry on Chabrol in one sitting feels like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you do go to such lengths to improve the site, you do not want the bureaucrats—who may know nothing about Chabrol—to judge your contribution. There is something unappealing about the value system of a project that prizes, say, movie reviews quoted from college newspapers over elaborate entries in the authoritative Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, simply because the latter does not have an easy-to-link Web site.

The Google fetish, it should be noted, is not ideological, but practical. Since Wikipedia’s editors are bombarded with editing tasks—one study estimates three new edits every second—they cannot investigate every entry thoroughly. They are constrained by what can be discovered readily—by Google. But most human knowledge, probably, still lies outside of Google’s reach.


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