Two opinions on wikis last weekend.
From the former editor of Encyclopedia Britannica, quoted in the Economist (sub required).
Contrast that with the joyful reaction of Wikipedia’s detractors to Brian Chase, the dodgy biographer (whose article was literally one in a million). Somebody who reads Wikipedia is “rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom,” says Mr McHenry, Britannica’s former editor. “It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.”
From an aside in John Clute’s review of Theodora Goss’s new book of short stories.
It is something that may derive from the tendency of mutants to emit blog gas, for the net culture they live in has no internal or external censors, no captaining of the unsorted untested wikipedian utterances of the gawping soul, no place for the buck to stop.
Something I’ve been musing about for a while … the intellectual roots of the hostility to unmoderated forms of publishing like blogs and wikis. Clearly there are a lot of economic interests at stake for the publishers of Britannica and others, but it seems to be more than that. I imagine that there’s a genuine indignation buried between the roots of Clute’s prosy efflorescences, which is perhaps a little surprising, as Clute has in the past (quite justifiably) complained about the unjust hierarchies of the academic publishing industry. Clute’s remark about there being no place for the buck to stop seems to me to be at the heart of the complaint. Conventional forms of publishing have an aura of finality about them – the published piece has received the approbation of a board of editors, and been published. If it’s an academic book, it has perhaps undergone peer review. Someone authoritative has uttered a final judgement, and found the book, encyclopedia entry, article, or whatever it is not wanting. But this is exactly what blogs and wikis don’t offer and can’t offer, since it’s at the heart of their competitive advantage. They’re never final. Blog entries are more like conversational gambits than finalized articles, and indeed, they’re frequently updated as new information or viewpoints come to light. Wiki entries are even more tentative in nature; perpetually subject to revision.
Still, this isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. The stark contrast between the two rests, at least to some extent on a misunderstanding of the processes at work. Peer review works reasonably well as a filter – but no-one with first hand experience imagines it to be a neutral process of distilling academic wisdom. Editors do a very valuable job in improving prose style, resolving internal contradictions etc, but their ability to check facts is necessarily pretty limited; they do what they can, but they face clear limits of knowledge, time and resources. Published encyclopedias can be spoofed too – as the Wikipedia notes, there is a long and honorable tradition of spoofing traditional reference works by trying to sneak articles on imaginary people or things past the editors. That books, encyclopedias etc look to be finished products doesn’t mean that they are necessarily so, and with wikipedia you can at least take a quick peek to see what the toilet cleaners have been doing. It sometimes seems to me that the biggest problem faced by various efforts under way to revitalize academic publishing by using these decentralized technologies of review is a version of the Wizard of Oz problem. While raditional academic review covers over the sometimes-grubby realities of review and improvement with a concealing veil, with wikipedia-type processes, you can see the guy behind the curtain all too clearly. None of which is to say that wikipedia and blogs don’t have problems, but it seems to me that the case that they’re necessarily worse than existing forms of knowledge review is, at best, far from proven.