Wikipedia and sausages

by John Quiggin on March 1, 2006

Sometime in the next couple of days, the one-millionth article will be added to the English-language version of Wikipedia. It’s an impressive achievement for a project that’s only five years old , and it’s already clear that Wikipedia has surpassed its main competitors, Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta in many important respects. Neither Britannica’s 200-year history and expert staff nor the Microsoft juggernaut have proved a match for Wikipedia’s ten thousand or so regular contributors, and thousands of occasional helpers. While many criticisms of Wikipedia have been made (as with most things, the most comprehensive source for such criticisms is Wikipedia, none has really dented either Wikipedia’s credibility or its growth.

Still, as Bismarck is supposed to have said

If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”
The process by which Wikipedia entries are produced is, in many cases, far from edifying: the marvel, as with democracies and markets, is that the outcomes are as good as they are.

I’ve been active on Wikipedia for several months now, and had some interesting experiences.

  • A visit to the recent changes page shows that there are between 50 and 100 changes each minute, or something like 100 000 changes per day. A fair number are cancelled out by subsequent reverts (either in response to vandalism or in the course of an edit war). A lot of others are very minor improvements, particularly in areas like cross-linking and categorisation. Still every little helps and the cumulative impact of all those changes in quite impressive. Although the quality of individual Wikipedia entries is highly variable, the structure as a whole is more powerful and robust than that of the competition.
  • If you think the blogosphere is riddled with factions, flames and fury, wait until you get involved in editing a controversial page in Wikipedia (this includes anything to do with sex, politics or religion of course, but there have been bitter controversies about quite trivial issues like capitalisation/capitalization and spelling). At least with blogs, all your critics can do is flame you in the comments section or on their own blogs. In Wikipedia, they can wipe out your brilliant work altogether or edit it into a travesty of your original intention.
  • Entries for living people (and for musical groups, companies, blogs and so on) are particularly problematic, and have become more so after the Siegenthaler affair. Given the problems that can be caused by errors or deliberate falsehoods in biographical entries, the guardians of Wikipedian orthodoxy have become increasingly pernickety both about citation of evidence for claims and about the requirements for inclusion of such entries in the first place. It’s quite amusing to watch a lengthy debate over whether someone is or isn’t notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, especially since, as with most things Wikipedian, anyone, however uninformed they may be themselves, is entitled to offer an opinion, and feels free to do so.
  • A lot of Wikipedians are particularly dismissive of blogs – ‘the ultimate vanity press’ is one of the kinder descriptions I’ve seen. Sean Bonner suggests that the anti-blog faction think blogs are just rumors about kittens and stuff. I blame Belle for this. More seriously, I suspect that there’s a clash between the collectivist ethos of Wikipedia, at least as regards the final product, and the more traditional authorial role of bloggers.
  • Despite all the above Wikipedia is good and getting better. Not long after the Siegenthaler controversy, Nature did a comparison of Britannica and Wikipedia on a set of science topics, selected without looking at either. Wikipedia had marginally more errors, but covered some topics omitted by EB (I can’t find a source for this right now, but I remember reading it).

{ 50 comments }

1

joel turnipseed 03.01.06 at 5:05 am

Well, as the Siegenthaler controversy should point out, there’s a big difference between a political (perhaps should be: politicized) article and one on, say, set theory or Q.E.D.

I know for sure of dozens of laughably inaccurate Wikipedia entries related to the book I’m working on now. And when you get to the stuff that should have a really good, skeptical vetting–that’s a lot of the worst stuff.

Now, I happen to adore Wikipedia–but it’s really not something to trust to the unwary.

IMHO, the Wikipedia folk should do three things: 1) allow no changes without registering & then logging in; 2) allow weighted voting on both specific edits and on editors (with weights based on opinions taken from seed pool of hired (?) experts); and 3) allow very high-ranking experts to referee both edits and rankings (e.g., if a bunch of goofballs figured out how to game the system, a few clicks could end their play).

One advantage Wikipedia has now, of course, is brand & a fairly well fleshed-out corpus–so, they’ve got something to work with, as they work on, making it not just extensive–but authoritative.

2

Charles S 03.01.06 at 5:53 am

via the wikipedia article on criticisms of wikipedia: the Nature article comparing errors in Britannica and Wikipeida science articles.

3

John Emerson 03.01.06 at 6:27 am

The questions which are controversial and lead to editing wars can be quite abstruse. E.G.: The Caucasian Albanians (ca. 1000 AD). Were they descendants of the Urartreans? Were they ancestors of the Azeri Turks, or were they Armenians of a sort?

Probably “Unlikely / rather distantly / maybe a little”, but further research is needed to shed more heat on the subject.

4

Ricardo 03.01.06 at 6:29 am

Are you insane? You think “between 50 and 100 changes each minute” is a good thing, when those changes are completely unmoderated for quality? You think 1M pages is a manageable amount of content for the few hundred real editors on Wikipedia? How do you actually know for a fact that Wikipedia any better than Britanica or Encarta?

5

DS 03.01.06 at 6:34 am

Well, seeing that you have made 14 contributions to the article on Eszter Hargittai, 12 to the Henry Farrell article, 4 to Kieran Healy, 3 to Jon Mandle and 1 to Jon Brighouse this blogger vanity idea doesn’t sound completely insane…

6

DS 03.01.06 at 6:35 am

Harry Brighouse, sorry.

7

Tim Worstall 03.01.06 at 6:54 am

Britannice?

There is a source for a link to the Nature report. But it’s at that place you guys really don’t like. Where myself and the ex-Editor in Chief of the Britannica discussed, in a series of articles, the differences in editing styles and the likely types of mistakes each were prone to.

Not quite sure how we were advancing corporate interests in doing so but still.

8

John Quiggin 03.01.06 at 7:02 am

Fixed thanks, Tim. Feel free to supply links.

9

John Quiggin 03.01.06 at 7:16 am

DS, that was an interesting exercise. The entry for Crooked Timber had red links to most of the members, indicating (I assumed) that entries were needed. So I created a bunch of short entries, which met with widely varying fates. It was certainly a learning experience.

10

DS 03.01.06 at 7:35 am

John – I didn’t mean to imply you are there to advertise CT. I just thought it was funny. But I hate emoticons.

11

Eszter 03.01.06 at 7:36 am

I just wanted to expand on John Q’s comments a bit. This seems to relate to John’s second-to-last point about the attitude Wikipedians seem to have toward bloggers.

A few of the entries about Timberites had been marked for deletion suggesting that they are not worthy of Wikipedia space given that the people they were describing were not significant enough. It was interesting to follow the discussion that ensued as various people – people we don’t know at all and who didn’t seem to have any particular expertise in our areas of expertise – proceeded to judge whether we were worthy of an entry.

While I realize that Wikipedia has come under attack for having a lot of information about fairly trivial issues as compared to the length of entries about really important topics (but that’s all relative and quite subjective for the most part, isn’t it?), I found it curious that some people perceived the deletion of entries as a way to increase the quality/reputation of the site.

It seems to me that what matters more is the quality/content of each individual entry, not what entries exist. After all, if something is completely trivial and won’t be of interest to anyone then no one will view that entry. It’s not as though tons of valuable space is thus being used up that could be better used. (That is, I’ve never heard that one additional entry might take up limited resources that may prevent another “more important” entry’s creation.) So why put so much effort into deleting entries instead of improving them (or ones of interest)? That part was not clear to me and did indicate a level of animosity toward bloggers that was interesting.

12

harry b 03.01.06 at 7:43 am

Good job I’m not afflicted with blogger’s vanity, ds! :)

13

Tad Brennan 03.01.06 at 7:51 am

Well, one difference between the wiki model and the blog model might be found in the charming final line of this post:

“(I can’t find a source for this right now, but I remember reading it).”

Wiki is good and blogs is good both I say.

As to wiki controversy–I remember being pretty stunned at how controversial the article on the Urdu language became. I just wanted to know a bit about a language. Oh no–don’t be so naive. Religion, invasions, ethnic identites, all hang in the balance.

I haven’t joined in the wiki editing game–must get over there and muck up the entries for my favorite CT authors. (“Kieran Healy’s involvement in the assassination of JFK has never been conclusively disproven….”)

14

Tim Worstall 03.01.06 at 7:56 am

John,
Here‘s the piece I did:
http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=122205A
That contains a link to both the original piece and to The Age’s report on the Nature thing (the Nature report was behind the subscription wall I think).
This is McHenry’s response:
http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=010206D
There was one further bit on my blog somewhere but not affecting anything greatly. Just clarifying that my use of markets and centralisation was an analogy, not a direct comparison.

15

Kieran Healy 03.01.06 at 8:02 am

Dave Chalmers made the mistake of getting involved in the Wikipedia discussion of the entry on conciousness, where his own philosophical views were part of the entry, and the resulting discussion was pretty funny.

16

JH 03.01.06 at 8:05 am

Does anybody else think wikipedia is a fascinating political experiment? Watching how it evolves from idealistic everyone-is-equal, to yeah-but-some-people-realy-go-too-far so we need rules like those suggested in the 1st comment, (e.g. registration) is akin to watching a society develop from the ‘original position’.

The best part about wikipedia is of course the talk pages though – if you want a direct line to what’s really going on. To be honest, I don’t bother with the actual article front page anymore, too dry, just head on in to the “Hitler=Stalin=Clinton” type pages!

17

Seth Finkelstein 03.01.06 at 8:10 am

Interesting commentary here:

http://www.roughtype.com/archives/2006/02/community_and_h.php

“The open source model is not a democratic model. It is the combination of community and hierarchy that makes it work. Community without hierarchy means mediocrity.”

18

DS 03.01.06 at 8:14 am

Eszter – those are reasonable points, but I think you underestimate the incredible amount of pointless articles and vanity pages that have been started on wikipedia, especially before it became obligatory to have an account in order to create a new article. Tons of valuable space would really have been used up if those had been kept. Even hard core inclusionists believe it is necessary to draw a line somewhere, and this will then have to be enforced. But it’s true AfD doesn’t show wikipedia from its friendliest side.

19

Cranky Observer 03.01.06 at 8:15 am

And just how do we know that these political controversies and horsetrading sessions don’t go on behind the scenes at, say, the Briticannica organization? In fact, based on essays by Isaac Asimov and others who did work for the classic encyclopedias I am fairly sure that they do.

Cranky

20

Richard Bellamy 03.01.06 at 9:15 am

It seems to me that what matters more is the quality/content of each individual entry, not what entries exist.

This comment assumes that these issues are totally separable. The problem with “vanity articles” or articles about really abstruse things is that only a handful of people (or one person) knows about it.

My wikipedia entry on “a day by day list of bedtime stories I read my daughter” can be confirmed only by me and my daughter (who can’t type). What if I make a mistake? The concept of wikipedia only works (if it works at all) when the masses can correct obvious malicious or inadvertent errors.

Wikipedia IS peer reviewed — it just has a much different definition of “peer”. If there is no one else who would have passing knowledge of the facts at issue, then there will be no one to correct errors, and therefore the average page quality will decrease.

21

Tom T. 03.01.06 at 9:28 am

It seems that Wikipedia is best approached as an artistic projest rather than a scholarly one. It cannot be cited in any scholarly way, since a given article may have changed beyond recognition at any time. There is minimal quality control, so one can only really be confident in the accuracy of a given article if one is already well-versed in that field. Joel Turnipseed, at #1, is basically saying that Wikipedia ought to become more like Britannica in order to be more intellectually reliable. It strikes me as significant that John Q. says only that he has been “active on” Wikipedia, rather than saying that he has used it for any purpose.

Still, Wikipedia is a beautiful accomplishment, and it’s aesthetically pleasing to watch it growing and constantly changing.

22

Scott Martens 03.01.06 at 9:33 am

I’ve been wondering when somebody – Google or Microsoft – would set up an edited edition of Wikipedia. It seems to me that Wikipedia does give you excellent information on what topics people consider important enough to try to know something about, and that an encyclopedia vendor whose principal business is not in encyclopedias could quickly assemble a very popular encyclopedia just by editing Wikipedia down to size. A more politic handling of a few controvertial topics, the removal of a lot of cruft, and voila!

I should think a team of minimum wage grad students working part time and a bit of smart search and graph weighting software (like, say, Google’s) ought to be able to do it on the cheap. It would, of course, still be GFDL, but somebody who owns a top three search engine could just fiddle their search scheme to direct people to it and sell the advertising space. I bet you it would still be profitable.

23

anonymous 03.01.06 at 9:45 am

JQ:

just looked at your Wikipedia entry. How did you like your years in Biddeford?

24

eweininger 03.01.06 at 9:48 am

Anybody else in the academic set noticed that when students feel the need to crib…borrow from the internet, they increasingly turn to Wikipedia? Assuming I’m not completely alone in this, I wonder whether it’s intentional–that is, if students perceive it precisely as a “resource” for papers, etc.–or whether it just happens to be that, whenever you type something-or-other (the subject of your assignment) into Google, a corresponding Wikipedia entry get returned near the top of the hit list.

25

Cryptic Ned 03.01.06 at 10:05 am

Wikipedia is absolutely amazing for finding information about pop-cultural topics (e.g. for those of us who have to write questions for quiz tournaments).

Three years ago, you’d have to hope to find old magazine articles, or a fan website that went several steps beyond “It is so cool! Who else thinks so??” if you wanted any reliable information about old kids’ TV shows.

Nowadays, just look at what you can find.

26

Cpt. Iglo 03.01.06 at 11:00 am

How reliable is Wikipedia? In the Polish version they had an entry about a murdering communist, called Henryk Batuta. It was there for fifteen months. Only trouble was that this Henryk Batuta never existed.

27

Ben 03.01.06 at 11:34 am

At least one of my students has actually referenced Wikipedia; I don’t know how many more have consulted it…

Mind you, I’ve looked things up there and found it pretty useful, particularly pop-culture but I was also directed to some useful links on sortition for my thesis. I’d say it’s a very useful resource, just that one should beware of relying on it.

28

Richard Bellamy 03.01.06 at 11:36 am

Wikipedia, I have found, is the best source in the world for finding AN answer to a question. This can be a hard step if you’re having trouble knowing what to google, or don’t have a relevant reference book.

Now, wikipedia requires a second step — determining whether the answer you found is right or not. But, as we know from fifth grade pop quizzes, it’s usually much easier to determine a TRUE/FALSE issue than determine the answer from scratch.

29

Oskar Shapley 03.01.06 at 11:42 am

You left an open parenthesis in your first coding block^W^W paragraph.

30

cm 03.01.06 at 12:10 pm

But this is how “collective intelligence” works — give everybody a shot. Exclusion (also in its form of declaring insights “finished” and not up for reconsideration) often enough leads to monoculture, which is inhibiting to adaptation and progress. Checks & balances that develop (or are instituted) at the “meta” level to reign in the inherent chaos must also be open to reconsideration, etc.

It is probably fair to say that most stuff on Wikipedia falls in the “human affairs” category which is not a true-by-fiat formal system. Even a successful and polished Wikipedia will show substantial fluctuation and dispute, while being for the most part “reasonably” stable.

This is just the way concepts and values are constantly renegotiated, explicitly or subconsciously. Every individual with a somewhat open mind does that.

31

John Emerson 03.01.06 at 12:46 pm

For me Wiki is the best and quickest first stop for finding out about uncontroversial topics I don’t know a lot about. If I had the Brittanica at home I’d still start with Wiki. Even on controversial topics it can be good if it hasn’t devolved into an editing war. There are two competing definitions of “economic rent”, for example, and last I looked Wiki had both, though it favored one.

32

Simstim 03.01.06 at 1:33 pm

#30: exactly! Sure there are inaccuracies, biases and downright untruths, but that’s the case with most other media as well (TV, newspapers, traditional encyclopedias, etc.)

33

abb1 03.01.06 at 2:05 pm

I sold my Britannica for $100 a few of months ago. Enough said.

34

John Quiggin 03.01.06 at 4:08 pm

I’ve cited Wikipedia in academic articles on occasion, for example in referring to definitions of computer/Internet technology.

35

radek 03.01.06 at 5:06 pm

36

radek 03.01.06 at 5:14 pm

Yeah, if you really want to know about a particular topic, rather than just surfing around to pick up on stuff you never knew was interesting, definetly read the talk pages. Sometimes there’s more info there then in the actual articles.

And the strength of Wiki is definetly in its breadth

37

Simstim 03.01.06 at 5:26 pm

By #30, I apparently meant #31! I’m finding CT’s commenting system’s habit of inserting comments at semi-random places more than slightly annoying.

38

radek 03.01.06 at 5:36 pm

Another strength of Wikipedia is that it is an international project, at least more so then standard encyclopedias. Which means that you get more than just an American centered or, uh, Britannica centered view of the world.

(It’s true that a formal encyclopedia might invite foreign scholars’ contributions, but there’s likely to be some serious selection bias, as those invited will largely reflect the views of the inviters)

39

tom van dyke 03.01.06 at 5:53 pm

I like the Wiki. Not only does it feature the conventional wisdom, it also “teaches the controversy.”

;-)

40

J. Goard 03.01.06 at 6:14 pm

My biggest Wikipedia battle (actually Wiktionary) was over the entry for “hella”.

I’m a former grad student in linguistics, and a native Northern Californian of the appropriate age, and even someone who has researched intensifiers and probably conversant with all of the sparse published linguistics literature on “hella”. As you might expect, the authentic examples in the current incarnation of the entry are mostly my work, as is the sole link to an abstract. I had to fight to save (something like) my part-of-speech classification, but have given up on getting rid of some clear errors. (Most notably the belief — by outsiders or by linguistically ignorant insiders — that “hella” can be described as a contraction of “hell of a”. The syntactic positions in which they can occur are too profoundly different. Far more likely is an extension of the construction that many other dialects share in “sorta” and “kinda”.)

But what gets me the most is what happened to a brief sociolinguistic passage I wrote, referencing two cases of stigma: a “South Park” episode where the obnoxious Eric Cartman annoys the other kids (in Colorado, if you didn’t know) by excessively using “hella”; and a T-shirt seen around Southern Californian campuses that read, “NorCal hella sucks!” Apparently this passage got removed because “two anecdotes don’t count as an established sociological fact” or some such. Well, see for yourself what’s up there now.

In short, the wasted effort and lingering frustration has left me a bit jaded.

41

Hedley Lamarr 03.01.06 at 6:56 pm

The more I read Wikepedia, the more I like it, especially for non-controversial topics.

Sausages, by the way, have been unhappily given a bad name over the years. They are often good.

42

Tracy W 03.01.06 at 9:56 pm

I happen to be writing a lot about electrcity issues in a technical manner (e.g. reactive power, or static var compensators). I did a degree in electrical engineering a few years back, so quite often I find I know something, but I’m not sure how to explain it in words. Wikipedia is very good for this and much more detailed than any other encyclopedia I’ve had the pleasure of using.

43

Keith 03.01.06 at 10:40 pm

I’ve been cataloguing comic books for the library I work at and to my surprise and delight, Wikipedia has the most comprehesive bibliographies (many of them annotated) for all the major characters and titles. It’s exhaustive and awe inspiring, at least in this librarian’s opinion. Brittanica? They wouldn’t touch icky comic books with an eleven and a half foot pole.

44

Randolph Fritz 03.02.06 at 1:39 am

…and you can’t document any designs of living architects. Even 50-year dead ones, you’ll have to take your own pictures and make your drawings. There are almost no good free photographs of living people, so forget photos for bio articles; even photos of dead people are encumbered, unless you make your own copies from primary sources.

45

Henry (not the famous one) 03.02.06 at 1:58 am

Back to sausages: and the making of sausages is fascinating, not repellent. When I toured Farmer John’s disassembly plant in Vernon, California some years ago (you outsiders might remember it from the murals used in Carrie), I thought it was a model for early 20th century technology, in which nothing was wasted: the blood was collected for fertilizer, the heads were either sold whole or chiseled for meat, offal was used for god knows what. Everything but the oink as they say.

46

nick s 03.02.06 at 3:00 am

It cannot be cited in any scholarly way, since a given article may have changed beyond recognition at any time.

I’d suggest that in most academic settings, a citation of Britannica would be no less frowned upon, unless it were in the context of the encyclopaedia as a historical primary text — i.e. the Thirteenth Edition’s entry on psychoanalysis, written by a certain S. Freud.

The point of an encylopaedia is to set you on your way, ideally in the right direction. And Wikipedia seems fairly good at that task.

I’ve been wondering when somebody – Google or Microsoft – would set up an edited edition of Wikipedia.

I believe that ‘Jimbo’ Wales has proposed ‘version freezes’ along the lines of software versioning that could be categorised as ‘editions’ and released in some form.

47

agm 03.02.06 at 3:04 am

48

bob mcmanus 03.02.06 at 9:14 am

I use two other Web encyclopedias regularly, another occasionally:All Music Guide,IMDB, and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. All have controversial content. AMG and Stanford are expert based, without reader input;IMDB puts controversy into the review section.

I would put Amazon into that class, except they really provide very little useful author information;very disappointing.

It might be interesting to compare these projects.

49

Ted McManus 03.02.06 at 9:19 am

50

Bill Korner 03.02.06 at 1:45 pm

Eszter etc.: If “vanity posts” did not create controversy that required the editorial attention of Wikiarchons then I think that it would be mostly unobjectionable. As I understand it, the problem comes when entries that are not much viewed create Wikiwars that suck editorial resources from more widely viewed entries.

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