Wikipedia at 2 million

by John Q on September 6, 2007

Sometime around next Sunday, Wikipedia will reach 2 million articles. It’s about eighteen months since the millionth article was added, and the number of new articles has stabilized at around 2000 per day. So the shift from exponential to linear growth (in article numbers at least) has taken place a bit sooner than I expected. Some disorganised thoughts follow.

The most obvious change in the past eighteen months is the way attention has shifted from the extensive margin (more articles) to the intensive margin (work on existing articles, metacontent such as categorization and classification schemes, and internal process such as the development and enforcement of policies on biographies of living persons, prompted by embarrassments like the Siegenthaler hoax and by the increasing propensity of politicans and others to edit their own entries).

There’s a natural economic logic here. With two million entries already, the typical new entry (ignoring the many short-lived attempts such as this one) is going to be something like List of state leaders in 1390s BC or Kitaōji Station. The marginal benefit of adding an entry is declining, though certainly not zero. On the other hand, the demand for internal improvements builds on itself. A stroll through Wikipedia using the Random entry function shows that the great majority of entries are tagged as needing improvement of some kind.

This process of cumulative improvement is resource-intensive, but not nearly as much as the dialectical processes that operate for controversial entries (and on Wikipedia, anything and everything can be controversial). Edits are made, reverted, reverted, tagged as needing support or violating some Wikipolicy or other, until a single sentence can consume dozens of hours of work. Still, the result is often a drastic improvement in quality compared to a starting point in which one point of view or another is taken for granted. One obvious manifestation of this is the vast increase in referencing of claims, and the increasing pickiness of policy regarding sources for such claims. Blogs have been a particular victim, with only a handful of expert-written blogs being accepted as reliable sources on particular topics. Despite the merits of the process, it’s easy to get burned out defending an article like Global warming controversy against the sustained efforts of delusionists to include lengthy and uncritical presentations of their latest talking points.

One thing is clear though. Complaining about Wikipedia now is like complaining about the Internet.There isn’t going to be any alternative, at least not for quite some time to come. The much-debated comparison with Brittanica is ancient history in Wikipedia terms – the work was done in late 2005, when there were about a third as many entries as now, and many millions of edits ago. As regards rival projects, Citizendium has some appealing characteristics, but is not really going anywhere., having about as many articles in total as Wikipedia adds every day, and not many articles obviously superior to their Wikipedia counterparts. Meanwhile, Conservapedia is a bit more active, distracts some trolls from Wikipedia and is always good for a laugh. So, complaining about Wikipedia is like complaining about the weather, except that you have the option of trying to improve Wikipedia if you want.



Doctor Slack 09.06.07 at 5:59 am

Two million crap articles perpetually “in need of cleanup to meet WikiPedia’s quality standards” except when they’re about lists of movies ordered by uses of the word “fuck”? Of course there’s no alternative… because there’s no pressing need. Just use regular boring old encyclopaedias in conjunction with the boring old rest of the Internet. Simple.


engels 09.06.07 at 6:29 am

Sometime around next Sunday, Wikipedia will reach 2 million articles.

Just out of interest, how many of those are on Japanese anime characters?


John Quiggin 09.06.07 at 7:34 am

Thanks to the marvels of the category system, it would not be too hard to find out. Here’s a list of 91 categories of anime characters by series. Average say 50 per series and you’d have 5000 articles (I imagine there is some tool that would let you avoid the need for an estimate). From random trawling, I’d guess there are at least 100 000 articles on pop culture trivia, and probably more. But of course, that still leaves plenty of room for anything else you might want.


bi 09.06.07 at 8:11 am

“Meanwhile, Conservapedia is a bit more active, distracts some trolls from Wikipedia and is always good for a laugh.”

Well, Wikipedia’s content may be less exciting, but thankfully it now compensates by means of salacious scandals: the Essjay scandal, the SlimVirgin brouhaha, and (hopefully) the SWATJester affair.

I eagerly look forward to the next episode of the exploits of Wikipedia’s nutbar admin frat club.


Tracy W 09.06.07 at 8:40 am

I find Wikipedia very useful when I am trying to figure out how to explain something that I already roughly know (eg the pros and cons of AC transmission compared to DC transmission), but can’t remember in enough detail to write it.

Incidentally, has anyone noticed a few media articles on Wikipedia about companies and political groups editing their own entries that imply that editing your own entry is a bad thing? It’s Wikipedia – it says on the English homepage that it is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Does anyone know why people are starting to think that’s unethical to edit your own entry, or that of some organisation you’re involved in?


Z 09.06.07 at 8:53 am

I must say I am more and more convinced of the value of Wikipedia. I am particularly impressed by the quality of articles in arcane rational subject, the prime example being mathematical articles. Articles on any subject pertaining in any way on any controversy between the left and the right in the US are still usually quite poorly written.


Keith 09.06.07 at 9:45 am

It’s Wikipedia policy that you don’t edit the article about you


stuart 09.06.07 at 9:45 am

It’s Wikipedia – it says on the English homepage that it is “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” Does anyone know why people are starting to think that’s unethical to edit your own entry, or that of some organisation you’re involved in?

It isn’t, but there are a number of guidelines around conflict of interest that aren’t being followed, and of course it is generally not the simple editing of articles that is being picked up on in the press, but the deliberate attempt to slant the articles (introduce POV in wikipedia terms) that is at issue.


Martin Wisse 09.06.07 at 11:07 am

I disagree that improving articles is now more important than adding articles; Wikipedia is still deficient in many areas I have some knowledge about (e.g. military history, comics, science fiction) and even in relatively well covered areas the depth of coverage is not that great.

One of the things I dislike about current Wikipedia practises, which plays a role in why coverage is still weak despite so many entries is that there are groups of editors who put as much stock in trying to eliminate entires as in adding entries.This in an encyclopedia which is supposed to catalogue everything of interest.


Seth Finkelstein 09.06.07 at 11:25 am

Complaining about Wikipedia now is like complaining about the Internet.

I think it’s more like complaining about trashy pop culture. Of course it’ll always be with us, but when has that stopped anyone?

And sure, you have the option of trying to improve it, but that’s sort of like finding a dirty toilet in a store and being told if that you don’t like the conditions, you’re welcome to clean the toilet yourself. And it’ll only get dirty again. While you might do it if you have to use that toilet, the idea of being an unpaid toilet cleaner (because you’re contributing to public sanitation), is not thrilling.

Events like the Essjay credentials deception really show a dark side of Wikipedia’s structure. And some academics have been far too gullible in terms of hyping it (general comment, not about this post).


Tracy W 09.06.07 at 11:27 am

Thanks Stuart. What’s puzzling me is the concern in the media seems not to merely be about dishonesty, but simply to state that so-and-so has edited their own organisation’s wikipedia page. Perhaps this is a result of editing by someone trying to squeeze articles into a corner of the newspaper.

Plus I understood that Wikipedia originally defended itself against the charge that it would be biased due to people’s editing by the defence that it had millions of fact-checking, and any damage caused by people deliberately inserting errors would be rapidly corrected. If this error-correction process does not apply to people who introduce errors by editing their own or their own company’s or client’s pages, then we have a general problem with Wikipedia as there are plenty of people biased about matters in which they have no financial interest.


Tom T. 09.06.07 at 11:59 am

JQ: “Complaining about Wikipedia now is like complaining about the Internet. There isn’t going to be any alternative.”

Alternative to do what? The point of the Internet is that it put a whole library on one’s desktop. In a world with Google and Ask, for what does one need Wikipedia?


Sara 09.06.07 at 12:34 pm

“Sometime around next Sunday, Wikipedia will reach 2 million articles”

And? In all seriousness, why can’t I summon the will to care? The whole thing strikes me as so 2001. I know, I know, the techno-millenarians will cry, “but it changed everything.” Yea, sure, but – umm – could you remind me again what it changed? Yea, I’ll grant that a certain number of geeks probably spend less time masturbating to internet porn whilst editing entries and labeling Jeremy Freese “not worth knowing about,” but, really, Wiki-talk puts me to sleep. Leave it to the folks in the “communication” departments…


Tom T. 09.06.07 at 12:39 pm

A trip through an admittedly small sample of 20 random articles produces 11 “stubs,” which suggests that over half of Wikipedia articles represent one person writing one paragraph.

For what it’s worth, eight were geographical. Seven were pop culture. Three have been tagged with “needs sources” since the beginning of the year.

One was history, one was science, and one was pseudo-science. One was clearly written by a corporate publicist.

And I can’t pass this up: “WZW may refer to: (1) The Wess-Zumino-Witten model of theoretical physics. (2) Wrestle Zone Wrestling”


engels 09.06.07 at 12:44 pm

Thanks, John. (Teaches me to ask snarky rhetorical questions…)


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 12:53 pm

I frequently find Wikipedia extremely helpful. It’s not reliable, and you have to read critically. Anything involved in religious, political, and national controversy is doubtful. However, that’s true of print media too, Bible archaeology being a major example. At best you’ll get both sides of the controversy mushed together.

On obscure topics upon which I am up to date, I sometimes find Wiki to be on top of things, and sometimes not.(Caucasian Albania: seemingly has suffered from national wars; one common source has been excluded, but there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t seen before. Volga Bulgars: Interesting stuff, influenced by Tataristan scholars; seems about right, possibly nationalist. Very nice map of 1200 Eurasia, maybe with some anachronisms. Qaraqitai: up-to-date, based on Biran’s recent book.)

For another example, the “Singlish” article is very interesting, whereas the “Hong Kong English” article and the “Chinglish” articles are tendentious and prescriptive.

I occasionally run into extremely odd little hobby pages which as as far as I know are accurate, for what they’re worth: complete list of Swedish noble family names. (Maggie Gyllenhaal is a Swedish princess or duchess or something).


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 12:55 pm

That should be “Karakitai”. Thre are many spellings.


stuart 09.06.07 at 1:05 pm

Tracy W., I don’t think Wikipedians in general have made a big deal out of this, mostly it is just seen as another tool that can help isolate non-good faith edits more quickly/easily. It has mostly been a media led thing that has made it into a big deal, as you say most of the edits in question have already been fixed anyway (see Diebold for an example which I noticed this morning).


Cranky Observer 09.06.07 at 1:21 pm

> (eg the pros and cons of AC transmission
> compared to DC transmission),

That’s bizarre: I was just going to post asking doctor slack at #1 above to read the Wikipedia article on high-voltage DC power transmission (HVDC) and find me an equivalent in any general-purpose reference text outside the utility industry. Then your comment popped up…



Jordan 09.06.07 at 2:10 pm

Of course there’s no alternative… because there’s no pressing need. Just use regular boring old encyclopaedias in conjunction with the boring old rest of the Internet. Simple.

The point of the Internet is that it put a whole library on one’s desktop. In a world with Google and Ask, for what does one need Wikipedia?

As z points out above, Wikipedia has become indispensable for technical articles, which, at least in an uncontroversial field like mathematics, are usually thorough and correct — certainly more so than any other easily searchable Web resource. I look things up there almost daily, and there’s really no alternative.


Katherine 09.06.07 at 2:25 pm

Just use regular boring old encyclopaedias

Oh please. Encyclopaedias cost a fortune, go out of date immediately and don’t travel wherever you do. That’s a snarky, elitist comment, if you don’t mind me saying so. Wikipedia may not be perfect, but it’s a great for quick looks at things, and despite what someone said above, it’s not particularly unreliable, compared to the sources of information that many people use like, say, print media.


JRoth 09.06.07 at 2:47 pm

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a Swedish princess or duchess or something

See, a lot of people say that, but I just don’t think she’s that great.


JRoth 09.06.07 at 2:56 pm

On a more serious note, is anyone else put off by the decision to require cites? My feeling was always that the point was that the self-editing function minimized the need for cites. Now, once you get dueling edits, cites can be valuable arbiters (altho, often as not, you just get dueling cites), but it really bugs me to read a page on the Laestrygonians in the Odyssey, and someone has tagged it as needing a cite. To what end?

I guess I feel like it’s pointless devil’s advocacy – it’s very easy to make work for someone else by demanding a cite for a perfectly noncontroversial, easily verifiable statement, but it doesn’t benefit anyone. There doesn’t seem to be any rigor in how citation demands are attached to articles and statements within, and so it doesn’t mean much. It’s also a flawed concept, since not all authorities are online, but IME online sources are the de facto standard.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 2:58 pm

Rosencrantz remains in the Swedish nobility, but there is no Guildenstern or Gyldenstern or -stierne. There are Gyldencranzes, Stiernecrantzes, and Gyllenstiernas, however.


robertdfeinman 09.06.07 at 3:30 pm

I had the experience, twice, of looking up something and not finding it. Both instances dealt with some 19th Century social philosophers. Both of them have web sites dedicated to them, with a good biographical summary.

Since I assume that the material on these sites is copyright, I can’t just pick it up and stick it into Wikipedia (although that seems to happen frequently). So if I wanted to create an entry how would I go about it? Steal from a printed encyclopedia instead?

Getting material into the site requires that it be based upon something else, this difficulty seems to be given only token acknowledgment (and that’s mostly for images).


Doctor Slack 09.06.07 at 3:52 pm

That’s a snarky, elitist comment, if you don’t mind me saying so.

I don’t mind at all.

However, I’ll note that WikiPedia is not, in fact, the only online encyclopedia with free content. The majority of the more esoteric and/or up-to-the-minute content that sets WikiPedia apart can be found from other sources with just as much or more reliability — this being why we have search engines — it’s just not the kind of thing you need to go to an encyclopedia for. (I’m glad to hear that it’s become a good online resource for highly technical math articles, for instance, that’s fine. But are you really telling me that kind of thing couldn’t be accomplished through a MathWiki?)

As someone whose major interests are outside that restricted set of things that WikiPedia does well, the only extra attraction WikiPedia has to offer for me is edit wars with charming characters like SWATJester; if dispreferring that makes me “snarky and elitist,” I’m completely cool with that. (And hey, I won’t deny that there are oocasional WikiPedia articles that offer mild diversion, reliability or no; just please don’t try and sell me on this “it’s already an unparalleled compendium of human knowledge, why don’t you get involved and help improve it?” nonsense, is all.)


~~~~ 09.06.07 at 4:06 pm

Jordan: …articles, which, at least in an uncontroversial field like mathematics, are usually thorough and correct—certainly more so than any other easily searchable Web resource.


It’s also a flawed concept, since not all authorities are online, but IME online sources are the de facto standard.

I don’t think that’s true. Maybe it depends on the kind of articles you look at, but in my experience printed sources are given as often as online sources.


Dan Miller 09.06.07 at 4:07 pm

“But are you really telling me that kind of thing couldn’t be accomplished through a MathWiki?”

The problem, of course, is publicity. If I’m an uninformed non-math-oriented person (actually, scratch the “if”), I won’t know about MathWiki or other specialized resources. Having all sorts of that type of thing in one place is valuable–that’s why encyclopedias are useful in the first place. It makes searching for random information much easier, which is not the same as saying that finding such info was impossible before wikipedia


engels 09.06.07 at 4:10 pm

The problem, of course, is publicity. If I’m an uninformed non-math-oriented person (actually, scratch the “if”), I won’t know about MathWiki or other specialized resources.

Ever heard of Google?


stuart 09.06.07 at 4:15 pm

robertdfeinman: Write a one sentence, or one paragraph link to the website that you have found and cite/see also that web page. Someone else is then more likely to add to the article with other sources once the ball is rolling.

jroth: I agree citation requests is one of the most common ways now of attacking someone elses edits, or trying to set an article up for deletion (by making it look as if it is all unsourced opinion), even when the fact in question is fairly uncontroversial. This is against the general policy, but the problem is that the guide stick for whether a fact is uncontroversial has essentially become whether or not someone has added a {{fact}} template to it or not. It is usually less trouble just finding a source for such a fact than arguing about whether or not such a cite is needed. Hence numerous articles now have a citation on every sentence, or more.


Seth Finkelstein 09.06.07 at 4:16 pm

By the way, the implications of Wikipedia winning the Google-lottery via a quirk in Google’s algorithm (links to anywhere boost everything on the site) are under-discussed. There’s plenty of HIGHER-QUALITY specialized sites (e.g. Mathworld mentioned above), but they don’t get found, because Wikipedia won the Google-prize. Hence it turns into a vicious circle, of people getting lower-quality work from Wikipedia, never seeing the better work, and then praising Wikipedia for good-enough work when in fact it’s worse than the other resources.


Walt 09.06.07 at 4:19 pm

Google has destroyed its usefulness for technical subjects. Google allows academic publishers to serve up full content to Googlebot, but “pay here” pages to ordinary users. So 90% of hits are to things you can’t read unless you’re at a university.


engels 09.06.07 at 4:27 pm

I share Seth’s irritation with the Google rankings. The analogy I like is the one provided by Wikiwatch with McDonalds: Wikipedia is a convenient, high-recognition, low-cost, low-quality provider which succeeds in driving out its higher quality competitors. It may be true, as John says, that There Is No Alternative (at least not right now) but noone has to be happy about this state of affairs.


engels 09.06.07 at 4:55 pm

And of course any one who complain about Wikipedia is an “elitist”. Just like anyone who complains about the food at McDonalds. (I actually read an article in the Economist once which made this argument iirc.)

Also, Katherine, all UK public library card holders now have free access to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, I believe.


bi 09.06.07 at 5:14 pm


The quest for accurate, well-researched write-ups is only for pedantic academicos, as we all know.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 5:28 pm

I second what Walt says. I work from home, without an academic library connection, and I frequently Google up pay sites. A lot of Wiki’s comparative advantage to libraries and simple Google comes from the fact that Wiki is a.) instantly accessible and b.) free.

Of course, perhaps academic exclusiveness is a feature, since no one really wants better-informed trolls.

I just don’t understand Seth’s and Slack’s vehemence. How many people have to tell them that it’s been useful for them for them to decide that Wiki might be more or less OK.

I strongly encourage all academics to post their stuff on free sites. How much royalties do they get, anyway? It’s a stupid, restrictive racket.


Doctor Slack 09.06.07 at 5:49 pm

I do not in fact believe a kitten dies every time someone finds WikiPedia useful. I just don’t think it’s all that hot as a basic encyclopedia, never mind being a whizbang universal human library, that’s all. The exceptions are all very well. I’d even like to read that article about the Qaraqitai.

I was a lot more vehement in the days when WP content was replicated across a dozen copycat encyclopedia sites, so that crap WikiPedia articles would crowd the first four pages of a Google search. That seems to have eased up, at least; noawadays it’s just the starry-eyed rhetoric about WP that’s a minor annoyance, and worth the occasional tilt.


engels 09.06.07 at 5:53 pm

How many people have to tell them that it’s been useful for them for them to decide that Wiki might be more or less OK[?]

Of course it is, and so is McDonalds. But like McDonalds it should only be considered if the healthier options are not available, or are too hard to get hold of, or too expensive. But since human beings (including myself a lot of the time) are as lazy as they are, this isn’t usually what happens.

(Btw if you say that the “comparative advantage” of Wikipedia is that is “instantly accessible” then you are admitting that your reason for relying on it is laziness on your part. Which is fine, but you might as well be upfront about it.)


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 6:12 pm

No, Engels, and please don’t speak to me that way. I’m lazy? You piece of shit.

It’s because I work from home and on most topics I’m interested in, Wiki is better and quicker than the edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica I own. I can look up a date, a place, or a name instantly without leaving my seat. Often I can find bibliography instantly. Sometimes there are even usable links.

Wiki is not an alternative to Google, to a library, or to buying books. It’s a single, very useful tool.

As far as I know, the resource to which Wiki is far inferior does not exist yet. As I said, we’d be a lot closer to that superior resource if universities let down their paywalls.


abb1 09.06.07 at 6:20 pm

A lot of people go to McDonalds for the reasons other than it being cheap and ubiquitous. All they want is a friggin sandwich and their children can play there. It’s not necessarily a cheap substitute of something, it’s its own thing.


Seth Finkelstein 09.06.07 at 6:40 pm

I believe there’s a lot of hype which swirls about Wikipedia, not just in the popular press, but also in more academic-type discussions where too much Kool-Aid has been drunk. It think it’s worth “harshing the buzz”. There’s a very exploitative aspect to Wikipedia which bothers me, where a few people at the top of an organization do well, and everyone else does badly. Plus the hype marketing is then used to distract attention from other problems.

I think it’s great for comics plotline descriptions and character biographies though, I’ll admit that.


bi 09.06.07 at 6:49 pm


“All they want is a friggin sandwich and their children can play there.”

Come to think of it, that’ll be a good selling point for Wikipedia. A place where you can drop off your children to get some friggin’ half-knowledge, far far away from the sexual predators that prowl around the rest of the Internet! (But Wikipedia’s not censored… oops.)


engels 09.06.07 at 6:52 pm

Did I (or anyone) say that McDonalds or Wikipedia is a “cheap substitute of something” or that Wikipedia isn’t “useful tool”? What I am saying is that many people, including myself, use it on many occasions when it would be better to use other resources, such as Google, another online reference source, or a library, and the reason for doing this (certainly in my own case) is often laziness.


Doctor Slack 09.06.07 at 7:00 pm

Oh, incidentally: If I’m an uninformed non-math-oriented person (actually, scratch the “if”), I won’t know about MathWiki or other specialized resources.

But if you’re uninformed, specialized resources are no good to you, right? People who use and have need of technical resources surely have networks by which they can publicize those resources.


mpowell 09.06.07 at 7:15 pm

I’ll grant you that as a possibility engels, but don’t confuse laziness with convenience. If I’m using wikipedia to look up something at work, keep in mind that part of my job is to get things done sooner rather than later. Searching for info myself can take quite a while. If there is a relevant wikipedia page it is likely to provide most of the information I need very quickly. If I knew of specific sources that had better material, obviously I would use them. The fact that I do not, we can attribute to a problem other people have noted: wikipedia winning the google prize and other factors associated with being the most popular ‘pedia out there. And this is not laziness on my part. Just the consequence of certain patterns, some predetermined, some of which could have or still could go a different direction.


abb1 09.06.07 at 7:21 pm

Bi, it’s not too often that I need the full knowledge of something; when I do, I’ll go to a good restaurant and order steak with Bordeaux. But much more often all I need is some idea about, say, John Emerson’s Karakitai or the name of Henry Kissinger’s wife or what percentage of rubber in my tires is synthetic.


bi 09.06.07 at 7:30 pm


“But much more often all I need is some idea about […]”

Which is OK if you don’t mind the possibility that the “information” you get may simply be totally wrong, and was merely written down in Wikipedia because someone heard someone else say that someone else say that the percentage of rubber is such and such.


sara 09.06.07 at 7:46 pm

“I do not in fact believe a kitten dies every time someone finds WikiPedia useful.”

But it sho does make baby jesus cry…

“I’m lazy? ….It’s because I work from home and on most topics I’m interested in, Wiki is better and quicker than the edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica I own. I can look up a date, a place, or a name instantly without leaving my seat. Often I can find bibliography instantly. Sometimes there are even usable links.”

You say tomato, I say tomato, convenience, lazy f$#%, convenience, lazy f$#%, lets call the whole thng off…


abb1 09.06.07 at 7:56 pm

Don’t matter, if we both agree to settle the bet by what’s in wikipedia. I don’t really care what the percentage of rubber is.


mollymooly 09.06.07 at 8:29 pm

Looking at that page, I wonder would it not have been easier to write a “List of Swedish commoner families”?

A while back there was no article “British class system”. Now it redirects you to “History of British society”, which seems a bit of a cop-out.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 8:31 pm

As far as the exploitation thing goes, Wiki offers people who have been squeezed out of the university racket a chance to continue doing something. I’m pretty sure that’s where the good Karakitai article came from — lots of very sharp Central Asianists (and lots of very sharp astronomers) never get academic positions.

This strikes me as a very good thing, I should go on to say. But then, I would think that.

Perhaps the wiki skeptics should set themselves a task: to compile a link page of pen-access resources on various topics which are superior to Wiki.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 8:38 pm



engels 09.06.07 at 8:59 pm

Mpowell – I’m not confusing those things. Using wikipedia is always convenient; in some cases, however, it is also lazy, eg. if you are not under intense time pressure and you could find a better source (ie. more accurate, more interesting, more intelligent and better written) through googling for five minutes, logging into Encyclopaedia Britannica or getting a book off your shelf. Perhaps you and John are under such intense time pressure that you really have no alternative, but for the average student or researcher I don’t think this is the case.


engels 09.06.07 at 9:00 pm

Btw I said I have done this myself so I really don’t think I’m being insulting.


lillemask 09.06.07 at 9:13 pm

I think Maggie would be a baroness (friherrinna).


harry b 09.06.07 at 9:31 pm

My ten year old vandalised the article about me — it got cleaned up (by JQ) almost immediately. One think I’d like to see more of is articles about notable but uncontroversial figures who are not long dead (eg, in my neck of the woods, Sir Alec Clegg and Gordon Hainsworth, both of whom are much more deserving of an article, and more interesting, than I, or probably most of the living people biographied – another complaint, there’s an article about me, but not about my dad). I know I could fix some of this, but it feels wierd to do my dad, and I am also pretty technophobic.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 9:34 pm

49: It probably would be: Swensson, Johnsson, Andersson, Larsson, Olsson, Petersson, Ericsson, and so on.

The Scandinavians who came to the US almost never had noble names (Palmqvist is the only one on the list up to 300 that I’ve ever seen here) and the whole point of being ennobled seems to have been to quit being Yon Yonson from Wisconsin and really be somebody.

I’ve been told that the Swedes, though economically relatively egalitarian, are acutely class-conscious. One guy told a story of trying to buy cognac, which he could afford, and being told by a clerk that he should get brandy (apparently he was visibly non-elite).


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 9:47 pm

For the things I use Wiki most for (dates, geography, tech terms) it’s just the best resource, because quickest. For something complex, or something I really need to know about, I wouldn’t use it. That’s true of all encyclopedias, though.

It seems best for a.) specific (noncontroversial) facts and b.) very quick, easy scans of some (noncontroversial) topic. And especially topics of peripheral and not central interest, where I know enough to read critically, but not enough for the article to be useless to me (as the Karakitai article mostly was — except that it’s easier to search than Biran’s book.)

I just did a spot check on the first 36 Googles on Singlish (Singapore English). The Wiki is the bet single source, not only because it’s good, but also because it references the next two or three best sources.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 9:53 pm

For a non-mathematician, the “lattice” wiki was more useful than the Mathworld “lattice”.


Jordan 09.06.07 at 10:11 pm

MathWorld is indeed useful, and I used to look things up there a fair amount before Wikipedia really got going. The math coverage on Wikipedia is much better. Wolfram may be able to muster a lot of employees, but not enough to match the worldwide army of procrastinating graduate students that provides the math content to WP.


lillemask 09.06.07 at 10:19 pm

Sounds to me like the helpful clerk at Systembolaget was simply suggesting something less expensive but better-tasting.


John Emerson 09.06.07 at 11:00 pm

The guy didn’t interpret it that way. It was more like, “Oh, know, you think you want that but you really don’t”. Obviously they sold cognac to someone. Maybe he was saving it for a special customer.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 12:08 am

“Perhaps the wiki skeptics should set themselves a task: to compile a link page of open-access resources on various topics which are superior to Wiki[pedia].”

See the site:

Not that they’re wiki skeptics, but their whole mission is pointing to good open-access resources. Ever heard of it? No? I rest my case.


engels 09.07.07 at 12:22 am

Perhaps the wiki skeptics should set themselves a task: to compile a link page of open-access resources on various topics which are superior to Wiki[pedia].

Well, for philosophy the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy is light years ahead.

Anyway, why does it have to be open access? Like I said, here in the UK anybody can get free access to mainstream reference sources including the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Grove Art, Grove Music and others from home using a public library card. I know that USians have similar arrangements available to them through eg. the San Francisco Public Library or the New York Public Library (for free if you live there, or for a relatively small fee if you live in another state, I believe.)


engels 09.07.07 at 12:27 am

Actually, I should have gone further: both those libraries have excellent collections of online resources, which are better than those listed above. But I wouldn’t be surprised if other public libraries in America could offer a package of a similar level to the above.


John Quiggin 09.07.07 at 12:53 am

Certainly, philosophy is an area that shows Wikipedia at its weakest. But across the board Wikipedia is far more comprehensive than Brittanica and at least as accurate in the areas they both cover (it was just about as good in 2005, and accuracy has improved a lot since then).


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 3:24 am

But across the board Wikipedia is far more comprehensive than Brittanica

Agggh! What on Earth is it with these obsessive comparisons to Britannica?


John Quiggin 09.07.07 at 4:33 am

Dr S, I was responding directly to engels at #64. But since you suggested “regular boring old encyclopedias” were superior right at #1, it seems like the obsession starts with you, unless you have some other regular boring old encyclopedia in mind.


bi 09.07.07 at 4:44 am

Eh, wasn’t the _Nature_ comparison between Wikipedia and Britannica cooked in Wikipedia’s favour?


engels 09.07.07 at 5:04 am

But across the board Wikipedia is far more comprehensive than Brittanica and at least as accurate in the areas they both cover (it was just about as good in 2005, and accuracy has improved a lot since then).

Presumably you’re referring to the Nature comparison of 2005, but this wasn’t a comparison “across the board” but only of science articles. Also, it wasn’t a scientific study but a survey carried out by journalists, and its results were rejected by Britannica and sharply criticised in The Register and elsewhere.

Have there been any other assessments of the accuracy of wikipedia? My completely subjective impression is that there are more factual inaccuracies than you would find in a published work. But I suppose my main problem with wikipedia isn’t so much accuracy but the written style of the articles, which often seems unclear, marred by prose which is bland at best and relies far too much on reporting other people’s views without offering any judgment of its own, which gives it a second-hand feel.

This appraisal of wikipedia by a historian touches on many of the issues I have.

Good historical writing requires not just factual accuracy but also a command of the scholarly literature, persuasive analysis and interpretations, and clear and engaging prose. By those measures, American National Biography Online easily outdistances Wikipedia.

Compare, for example, Wikipedia’s 7,650-word portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the 11,000-word article in American National Biography Online. Both avoid factual errors and cover almost every important episode in Lincoln’s life. But surely any reader of this journal would prefer the American National Biography Online sketch by the prominent Civil War historian James McPherson. Part of the difference lies in McPherson’s richer contextualization (such as the concise explanation of the rise of the Whig party) and his linking of Lincoln’s life to dominant themes in the historiography (such as free-labor ideology). But McPherson’s profile is distinguished even more by his artful use of quotations to capture Lincoln’s voice, by his evocative word portraits (the young Lincoln was “six feet four inches tall with a lanky, rawboned look, unruly coarse black hair, a gregarious personality, and a penchant for telling humorous stories”), and by his ability to convey a profound message in a handful of words (“The republic endured and slavery perished. That is Lincoln’s legacy.”). By contrast, Wikipedia’s assessment is both verbose and dull: “Lincoln’s death made the President a martyr to many. Today he is perhaps America’s second most famous and beloved President after George Washington. Repeated polls of historians have ranked Lincoln as among the greatest presidents in U.S. history.”

In addition to McPherson’s elegant prose, his profile embodies the skill and confident judgment of a seasoned historian. The same is true of many other American National Biography Online sketches …

Of course, not all historians write as well as McPherson … Wikipedia’s profile of the Confederate guerrilla fighter William Clarke Quantrill arguably does a better job of detailing the controversies about his actions than American National Biography Online. Even so, it provides a typical waffling conclusion that contrasts sharply with the firm judgments in the best of the American National Biography Online essays: “Some historians,” they write, “remember him as an opportunistic, bloodthirsty outlaw, while others continue to view him as a daring soldier and local folk hero.”


engels 09.07.07 at 5:05 am

(The last four paragraphs of the above comment should be indented.)


engels 09.07.07 at 5:11 am

“it wasn’t a comparison of all the areas they both cover, but only of science articles”


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 5:23 am

#69/bi – Yes, I’d say the comparison was arguably “cooked” to favor Wikipedia – The methodology used was almost guaranteed to generate a headline of “Wikipedia almost as accurate as Britannica” (the trick was every quibble was counted as an error for both – and any article can have quibbles).


JP Stormcrow 09.07.07 at 5:56 am

One point that seems to get lost in discussions like this on Wikipedia is an appropriate sense of wonder that the thing even got to the point that a debate like this would even occur. I for one certainly did not foresee it, and I know of no one who did – would be interested if anyone here claims that they predicted anything close to the trajectory that Wikipedia has taken. (Just for a reminder here is a link to “Nostalgia Wikipedia”, a snapshot from December 20, 2001 – We started in January 2001 and already have over 19,000 articles. We want to make over 100,000, so let’s get to work.)

I certainly think that there are many issues with Wikipedia and that it may have topped out in its current form, but I also challenge anyone to dispute my contention that it is one of the most interesting and astonishing experiments ever in human collaboration on a grand scale.


John Quiggin 09.07.07 at 6:12 am

The criticisms of the Nature study were just special pleading, of the kind we’ve seen repeatedly when studies produce inconvenient (Lancet, anyone?) and the Register’s treatment of them was exactly that of the blogs who’ve trumpeted every possible criticism of inconvenient truths.

The point about American National Biography Online is much more substantial. It’s certainly true there are lots of special purpose reference sites better than Wikipedia for their particular areas, and of course, a single author with firm judgements is usually more readable than an encyclopedia dedicated (with mixed success) to a neutral point of view. But the fact that Wikipedia is encyclopedic, with vast numbers of cross links and external references is a significant offset.

And, of course, it’s free. As the author points out “American National Biography Online may be a significantly better historical resource than Wikipedia, but its impact is much smaller because it is available to so few people.”


Z 09.07.07 at 6:47 am

To second Jordan, Mathworld used to be vastly superior to Wikipedia, and Planetmath is still theoretically superior in my opinion but I have serious troubles viewing it (for reasons I don’t understand). The best encyclopedic online source I know is Springer’s EOM. Those sources may be more accurate, abstract and technical than Wikipedia but Wikipedia has longer articles and chances are you will find an answer to the specific question you are asking yourself. Take say the article on Regular local ring: Mathworld contains only one of the definition, it is a poor article ; Planetmath has a few equivalent definitions, it is alos quite poor ; EOM has a nice factual article with three equivalent definitions and a few important theorems but Wikipedia has all the equivalent definitions provided by the other sources, more examples, a good deal of theorems about them and includes a motivation for their study.


abb1 09.07.07 at 7:01 am

I certainly agree with point about wikipedia’s stylistic imperfections, that’s a problem; irritates the hell out of me sometimes.


bi 09.07.07 at 8:31 am

John Quiggin:

“The criticisms of the Nature study were just special pleading”

That’s bullcrap. You don’t slap together pieces from different articles and pass off the result as if it’s supposed to be one single Britannica article, and then claim that the methodology is perfectly sound.

And there’s more:

“It [_Nature_] says that the ‘expert-led investigation’ revealed that ‘the difference in accuracy [between the encyclopedias] was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.’ But Nature subsequently released ‘supplementary information’ about the survey, including more details on the methodology and a full list of the errors cited by the experts. (In total, Wikipedia had 162 errors while Britannica had 123.) […]

“[…] the _Nature_ reporters filtered out some of the criticisms offered by the experts. They note, in the supplementary information, that the experts’ reviews were ‘examined by Nature’s news team and the total number of errors estimated for each article. In doing so, we sometimes disregarded items that our reviewers had identified as errors or critical omissions. […]’ Since the reporters don’t document the ‘errors or critical omissions’ that they subjectively filtered out, it’s impossible to judge whether they applied more to one publication than the other.”

So it’s not even the experts’ opinions that what they saw of Wikipedia is better than what they saw of Britannica; the opinions had to be filtered yet one more time through the _Nature_ reporters’ own brains. I seriously can’t figure out how one can look at this methodology and still claim that it’s sound.


John Quiggin 09.07.07 at 8:46 am

bi, is this source really claiming that the difference between 162:123 and 4:3 is significant? This is quibbling at a level that would make David Kane blush.


bi 09.07.07 at 8:56 am

John Quiggin:

I don’t think Nick Carr was claiming that 4:3 and 162:123 is a big difference, but that the 162:123 was obtained after the _Nature_ reporters arbitrarily filtered away some of the experts’, um, expert opinions.


bi 09.07.07 at 8:58 am

In short, the results are just magic pixie dust.


Katherine 09.07.07 at 11:30 am

Engels, you might well be able to get free access to Encyclopaedia Britannica in a public library, but my home is some distance away from a public library, as is my work place, and I don’t fancy a half hour walk every time I want to look something up quickly. Fact is the Wikipedia is, as I said, free and instantly accessible – and that doesn’t cease to be the case just because you can buy an encyclopedia if you can afford it, or get it free in limited places.

Don’t like Wikipedia, Dr Slack? Don’t use it then, but you can’t pretend that it is of no utility to a great number of people. And really, don’t sniff at the plebs that do use it, just because you don’t like it. I’d challenge anyone to really say that the world is worse with it than without it, even if they dislike it.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 12:29 pm

I don’t have free access to anything which is not free for everyone whatsoever.

Stanford does not have an entry for Stephen Toulmin, and Wiki does. In all but one of the six Stanford articles called up by a “Stephen Toulmin” seacrh, Toulmin is just a name on a list. He gets one sentence in one piece.

The more eclectic nature of Wikipedia, and its refusal to perform the gatekeeper / censor function, is a big plus for me, though I’m sure that for philosophy professionals it’s not. Presumably an an article on Toulmin would lead to the corruption of youth.

Resource Shelf is pretty impressive, and I’ll be looking through it. By its organization, however, it is absolutely useless for a quick search on a miscellaneous topic.

People mention the Brittanica so much because it serves the same quick-search function that Wiki does. If it weren’t behind the pay wall I’d use brittanica more. I just looked at the teaser for their Toulmin article, though, and it’s shorter than 200 words and can’t be much good. It would not be worth $70 a year to be able to access that kind of thing.

Seth, Slack, usually I agree with you guys, but I’m starting to wonder whether Jimmy Wales has been screwing your wives or something.


mollymooly 09.07.07 at 12:42 pm

Katherine@82: I think you misunderstood Engels: you only need to trek to the physical library once, to join and pick up your card number. After that, you can key in the number on the premium subscription login page of the relevant website from the comfort of your own home/office/Starbucks.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 12:53 pm

To John Q at 68, okay, sorry for that outburst. Actually the online encyclopaedia I use is Columbia but I can see why Britannica came to mind in that context. I guess I just have a bit of a reaction to the genre of the Britannica comparison, as cf. the posts about the Nature “study.”

To Emerson: Jimmy Wales ran over my cat. Now you know, you hearless bastard.

To Katherine: I sniff at you plebs! Sniff, sniff! And you can’t stop me, mwahaha!


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 1:01 pm

A little more seriously:

I’d challenge anyone to really say that the world is worse with it than without it, even if they dislike it.

I wonder what any of the various people who’ve been defamed on WikiPedia would have to say about that. I make light of its inaccuracies and geeky preoccupations but there really are more serious issues than that at play.


Martin Wisse 09.07.07 at 1:10 pm

That’s the problem with so many discussions about Wikipedia, the never ending debate about whether it’s cool or not, whether it lives up to the hype, how awful or awesome it is, etc.

Wikipedia is a tool with advantages and disadvantages, but I wish the discussion would start about how to best use it and make it more useful, rather than leaving it stuck in hot or not.

What people miss who point out that there are better sources than Wikipedia online is that there is no other place where you can get everything: Wikipedia’s math coverage may be second best to PlanetMath, but at Wikipedia you can also look up history, or literature or pop culture. It’s supposed to be the encyclopedia which covers everything and that’s what makes it useful as a starting point for researching any subject. I always have a Wikipedia tab (two actually, one Dutch and one English) open in Opera so I can quickly look up something mentioned elsenet I’m not familiar with. Nine out of ten times Wikipedia gives me, not the full story, but at least a good impression of what the subject is about.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 1:11 pm

john: Well, I did experience Wikipedia’s article (in)accuracy firsthand.

But look, doesn’t promoting a degree-falsifier, and then trying to declare it a non-issue when a reporter is lied to, indicate there’s something worth being skeptical about, regarding how the organization works?


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 1:24 pm

” wish the discussion would start about how to best use it and make it more useful,”

You see, this is what bothers me – if I see something that I think is notably flawed and disturbingly exploitative, why am I constrained not to talk about those flaws, and somehow obligated to try to solve them? (especially if they’re pretty standard social issues that nobody has solved much). And that’s even more an issue where there’s so much hype, where I might think a little deflating of the hype is warranted.

I’m not saying you mean the following, but I’m very leery of “make it more useful” because that has a strong tendency to turn into: YOU should work for free to fix the problems caused by the flaws in the first place, and then we’ll claim it’s magic and use that magic to enrich ourself elsewhere.

And I think: Umm, why should I do that? It seems like a really bad deal for anyone except the few people trying to get rich off it.

Wikipedia is fundamentally a popularity-mining site. That shouldn’t be ignored in critiquing it.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 1:56 pm

OK. But up till now it’s been all about whether Wiki is a good resource. I have not been defending its use as a medium for slander, character assassination, fraud, disinformation, etc.

I read all articles on controversial or contemporary topics with a grain of salt, if I read them at all. On contemporary / controversial topics Wiki is comparable to a randomly-selected newsprint publication. This only affects my own use of Wiki when history is being warped to ground nationalist or religious claims.

The free labor is a red herring. Much of the blogosphere (notably my site) is free labor by people who are willing to write unpaid just to be writing, even if only a few people read it.I’d have a lot more readers for no more effort and no less pay if I wrote for Wiki. People will quit working for Wiki if they quit wanting to.

To me the credentials problem is also a tempest in a teapot. I’m uncredentialed myself and everything I say can be, and frequently is, dismissed without consideration for that reason. Credentialization has its down side — e.g. the orthodox Stanford Encyclopedia’s neglect of Toulmin, a dissident philosopher.

The fake credentials seem to have been used in behind-the-scenes arguments. I always assume that Wiki is written by anonymous self-appointed amateurs. You need that grain of salt. But, as I’ve been saying, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy needs a grain of salt too.


Katherine 09.07.07 at 2:01 pm

Dr Slack @86 – who are these hordes of people you seem terribly concerned about? Has anyone actually experienced actual harm, professionally or financially? I am well prepared to be proved wrong on this point if you can provide evidence. But I would venture to suggest that even Mr Seigenthaler hasn’t suffered in the long term.

There have been a few high profile politicians and one or two others who have complained about edit wars, and if anything this has highlighted the fact theat Wikipedia, being what it is, should not be treated as the fount of all knowledge. Weighing that up against the enormous usefulness it has for an enormous number of people, and I’m still thinking it comes out ahead.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 2:07 pm

91: who are these hordes of people you seem terribly concerned about?

I’ve known people who have been thus defamed, actually, not every single case becomes a media frenzy. As to what harm it’s caused, it’s pretty hard to tell. One particular case had a Wikibio propagated through WP and across several sub-sites for over two years that denounced him as a fraud; I only happened across it by chance. I don’t think anyone could reliably guess what the effects of that were. Maybe negligible. Maybe not.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 2:26 pm

john/ #90, I think there’s a set of standard arguments that Wikipedia has evolved to deflect criticism.

Point: It’s often not very good

Deflection: No single source sould be taken as gospel.

[This *deflects* the point, because it turns into a prescription to the reader, away from Wikipedia’s quality]

Deflection: Newspapers / magazines are not very good

[This shifts the basis of comparison – it’s supposed to be an encyclopedia, not popular press]

Point: It exploits people to work for free

Deflection: People are exploited in many ways to work for free

[But that doesn’t justify Wikipedia doing it – a small-time cult leader isn’t justified because there are bigger cult leaders]

And so on.


Cranky Observer 09.07.07 at 3:03 pm

> Mathworld used to be vastly superior to Wikipedia

Note that Mathworld was and I believe still is tied up in a brutally ugly copyright dispute that was only partially resolved by Stephan Wolfrum stepping in and paying a lot of money (with no real hope of return as far as I can see) to a third party who had not, in my opinion, treated the original author very fairly. This points to an issue seldom discussed which is the license terms of Wikipedia vs other sources.



John Emerson 09.07.07 at 3:10 pm

Here’s my argument, Seth.

It’s better than anything else available to me today. I gave instances above: Britannica and the Stanford Encyclopedia on Toulmin. I also explained why “Resource Shelf” is worse for my purposes than Wiki is.

It’s much better than anything available to me 10 years ago. Combined with Google, I’m in paradise now. I use Google very extensively, but I often start with Wiki. And Wiki often guides me to better sources.

Every non-profit depends on volunteers. I’m in favor of volunteerism and I’m also in favor of extra-academic intellectualism.

I agree that something should be done about the slander and disinformation. If someone were to set up a more reliable, more carefully controlled resource that does everything that Wiki does, that might be a good thing, except that they’d probably do the kind of gatekeepering that the Stanford Encyclopedia does.

What if we just drop the term “encyclopedia” and say that Wiki is a very good thing: a free, easy-to-use, information resource of variable but often very high quality, comparable to the free press. but not an authority.

I don’t take Wiki as an authority, but I don’t take the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as an authority either. The SEP’s claim of authority is, for me, obnoxious. Toulmin has directly challenged the Anglo-American philosophy of which he once was part, and their response has been to unperson him.

But there I go again.


engels 09.07.07 at 3:13 pm

The more eclectic nature of Wikipedia, and its refusal to perform the gatekeeper / censor function, is a big plus for me, though I’m sure that for philosophy professionals it’s not. Presumably an an article on Toulmin would lead to the corruption of youth.

Emerson: I’ll concede that if you believe that academic philosophers are all charlatans who are conspiring to “censor” The Truth about the evil Analytic Philosophy “racket” then you will probably find wikipedia preferable to the SEP.

Don’t like Wikipedia, Dr Slack? Don’t use it


“Don’t like Walmart? Don’t shop there.”


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 3:27 pm

Engels, Toulmin was a respected, well-connected analytic philosopher who came to believe that Anglo-American philosophy was on the wrong track, and he said so quite intelligibly. To me someone like that should be covered. Do you believe that he shouldn’t be? Do you believe that Wikipedia also should have left him out.

Your little outburst of sarcasm was really not effective at any level, not even the snark level. In particular, it had no intellectual content whatsoever. Curb your affect, please.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 3:29 pm

“It’s better than anything else available to me today”

IT ISN’T – that’s part of the argument. There’s much better material available. But they’re slightly more difficult to find BECAUSE WIKIPEDIA WON THE GOOGLE-LOTTERY.

And that win of the Google lottery has been used to justify everything from a cult structure to some very disturbing anti-intellectualism, as well as a club against people who are harmed by it. Which is what I find so alarming.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 3:37 pm

Seth, where’s a better one-stop all-purpose search? I already explained why Resource shelf isn’t that.

For Toulmin, Brittanica is worse, and the Stanford Encyclopedia is worse.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 3:44 pm

You’ve just created an argument that Wikipedia would win by definition, since an article of the quality of “Africa is a country” would score better than no article at all – but that seems a wrong result.


engels 09.07.07 at 3:48 pm

All sarcasm aside, John, it’s becoming quite clear that your objection to the SEP is that it reflects the scholarly consensus within the field of philosophy. There’s no need for me to comment on that view here, or your opinions about academic philosophy, just to note that it is not one which will be shared by the vast majority of researchers, students and interested amateurs wanting to learn about the subject.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 3:54 pm

Yes, “reflecting the consensus” means excluding everyone outside the consensus. To you, Wiki is worse than the Stanford Encyclopedia because it neglected the consensus and failed to exclude Toulmin. To me, it is better for that very reason.

It’s pretty irrelevant how many people share my opinion, though, don’t you think? Philosophically speaking, I mean? In terms of reason, Truth, and the free discussion of ideas? Socrates, etc.?

There indeed was no need for you to comment, but you did anyway.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 3:56 pm

Seth, what I use Wiki for is a one-stop all-purpose search. I find it very useful that way. That’s what encyclopedias are for.

I can easily imagine a better such resource, but as far as I know it doesn’t exist at this point in time.


Seth Finkelstein 09.07.07 at 4:28 pm

Well, a criterion which automatically excludes every per-topic scholarly site no matter how good its topical coverage, seems to me extermely problematic. I understand that’s your criterion. But again, it doesn’t strike me as a good basis for anything other than coming up with a way for Wikipedia come out on top.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 4:50 pm

Seth, Wiki has a specific use, and I use it for that. For my areas of central interest, I go to books. For areas of secondary interest, Wiki is a godsend. (Same for any other encyclopedia, but Wiki is better). I don’t understand your objection, and this is starting to sound like a personal vendetta.

I’m going to go to the Resource Shelf and check it out, and I may well find valuable specific-topic sites there. But I’m pretty sure I’ll still use Wiki a lot.


bi 09.07.07 at 5:50 pm

John Emerson:

“Every non-profit depends on volunteers.”

Yeah right, that’s some point. I’ll just say this: It’s not my moral duty to make Jimbo Wales look good. It’s not my moral duty to clean up the mess created by Jimbo and pals’ very own incompetence and heavy-handedness. It’s not my moral duty to make Wikipedia come up on top. It’s not my moral duty to babysit the Internet.

“The more eclectic nature of Wikipedia, and its refusal to perform the gatekeeper / censor function, is a big plus for me”

Quantum unreliability is a big plus? Who knew?


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 5:58 pm

Nobody said it was your duty, bi. Other people are doing it, though. rest easy.

So Bi, is Wiki wrong for covering Toulmin more thoroughly than Stanford or Britannica? Should they be censured in some way?

Block that affect, bi! Sarcastic, angry rationalists (et al) tend to be morons.


bi 09.07.07 at 6:21 pm

“Is Wiki wrong for covering Toulmin more thoroughly than Stanford or Britannica?”

No, but I’m wondering if it’s just because the SEP treats Toulmin as a rhetorician rather than a philosopher (instead of it all due to some Vast Conspiracy). Note that the SEP doesn’t have an entry on Cicero either.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 6:25 pm

“Vast Conspiracy” sarcasm is stupid, bi. You don’t learn, do you?

Excluding Toulmin from philosophy on the basis of a jurisdictional dispute of that sort strikes me as wrong. In any case, anyone wanting to learn about Toulmin would be far better off going to Wiki, rather than trying to figure out which professional, legit site accepts him as kosher. Same for Cicero.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 6:51 pm

Toulmin is interesting, but I don’t see that he’s so earth-shaking that his exclusion from the Stanford is a knock against its credibility. (Not that he’s excluded, exactly, his work is cited in several places — he just doesn’t have his own article.) Cicero isn’t typically seen as an original thinker so much as a transmitter and popularizer of philosophy, which is a common and arguably unfair view.


bi 09.07.07 at 6:53 pm

John Emerson:

“‘Vast Conspiracy’ sarcasm is stupid, bi.”

Here are your own words: “Toulmin has directly challenged the Anglo-American philosophy […] and their response has been to unperson him.”

“You don’t learn, do you?”

Oh please, not this “I’m wrong, but I’m still right!” schtick again. Then again, I don’t understand why people keep defending Wikipedia like it’s their firstborn. It’s just a web site, for goodness sake. (And not a particularly high-quality one at that.)


bi 09.07.07 at 6:56 pm

Doctor Slack:

“Cicero isn’t typically seen as an original thinker so much as a transmitter and popularizer of philosophy, which is a common and arguably unfair view.”

Well, that’s something to think about…


Witt 09.07.07 at 7:07 pm

Sure, it’s nice to get access to paid-only databases through your local library. But you have to live in a place with a tax base that supports the wildly expensive (thousands of dollars per year) subscription prices for those fancy electronic databases. So Green City may be able to afford a biographical dictionary, while Blue City cannot. In my small suburban town of 4000 residents, people may live in one of three townships depending. Each municipality has different resources available.

Not only do you have to show proof of residence to get a library card — which is tough for college students, au pairs and others who don’t have a utility bill or lease in their own name — but children have to have their parents come to the library and sign a form.

There are a lot of barriers to getting information. Wikipedia is one tool that can help people get information they would not otherwise have access to easily, or at all.

I am in complete accordance with emerson’s 95.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 7:11 pm

Jesus Christ, guys. I’m just saying: if someone wants to learn about Toulmin, Wiki is much better than the CEP, and it’s also much better than the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Am I wrong? Isn’t that the kind of thing we’re talking about?

Bi, the heavy-handed expression of sarcasm was the stupid part. The thing you didn’t learn is that enraged rationalists who use sarcasm tend not to do it well. You guys just can’t handle affect.

Yes, I do think that Toulmin has been excluded, and wrongly so. he pretty much says so himself. He does not accept the “just a rhetorician” compromise. What he says is that “Practical philosophy is philosophy itself”.

I’ve been enumerating at length ways in which I find Wiki helpful, useful, and superior to the actually-existing alternatives, and far superior to what I had available ten years ago. Has anyone argued against that?

I’m sorry that Wales peed in y’all’s cornflakes, but I don’t see that any of you have made a valid point. I do agree about the slander and disinformation part, but you are badly misrepresenting the value of Wiki as a resource.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 7:27 pm

JE: Well, we can joust with anecdotes about good and bad WikiPedia articles if you really want to. I generally find that for anything I’m looking for, there’s a) a rare chance of pulling up an article that’s strong, well-written and interesintg; b) a good chance of pulling up an article that’s decent, but clumsily written and presented and does in 2000 words what other resources I use do better in 700; c) a fair chance of pulling up an article that’s partially decent, but partially incoherent or riddled with inaccuracies or the suspicious debris of editing wars; and d) a non-infrequent chance of pulling up something completely useless except for entertainment value. Trying to filter which is which is exhausting, and not what I look for in a reference work, so I don’t bother anymore. If you do, more power to you.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 7:34 pm

I still don’t see your point. I use Wiki mostly for specific factual points and quick-and-dirty introductions to things I’m not familiar with. That’s what encyclopedias are for, as far as I’m concerned, and Wiki has been wonderful — often enough I can get my answer within ten seconds. There’s nothing comparable. Even when I start with Google, often I end up going to the Wiki. Perhaps if I knew better what you use it for, I’d understand you.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 7:37 pm

To make a positive, non-hostile suggestion: if the Resourceshelf people had a consolidated search so that you didn’t have to poke around deciding which site had what you wanted, it probably would be a superior alternative to wiki.

A problem touched on above which is very relevant to me is that a lot of sites deliberately exclude unqualified people such as myself. I’d like to see a study of that. My guess is that the pay sites earn very little revenue for the content-producers.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 7:55 pm

To be more specific, if all the sites somehow tagged themselves, a Google would only bring up Resourceshelf pages. A seal of approval type thing.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 8:18 pm

The links to further resources thing is nice, mind you, but not consistently “wow” enough to win me over.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 8:21 pm

JE: Well, I do use it for fast-and-dirty introductions, but not for looking things up in ten seconds. I do like to meander around a bit and I find clear writing and consistent quality to be pretty big considerations.


John Quiggin 09.07.07 at 8:33 pm

I’m repeating points that have already been made, but it seems to me that the main substantive objection being made here is that, in most cases, Wikipedia is not the best reference source in any given field.

That said
(i) in many cases, the superior reference sources are not freely available
(ii) where they are freely available, someone relying on Google (even someone who ignores Wikipedia) may well not find them
(iii) in many cases, Wikipedia’s own links are better than the results of a Google search

Looking at this question a year or so ago, I thought it would take an expansion to 10 million articles with an associated improvement in quality to get to the point where Wikipedia was generally superior to specialist reference works. Given that scaling problems are obviously emerging, this may not happen for quite a while.

But, as jp stormcrow said, the fact that such a comparison is even being made is startling.


John Emerson 09.07.07 at 8:41 pm

OK, another example. Yesterday I was Googling zircon recycling (zircons run through volcanoes more than once). I spent half an hour and didn’t find what I wanted. I didn’t go to Wiki.

I just now went to Wiki, and it would have saved me time by sending me to the best article I Googled. Furthermore, the Wiki itself wasn’t that bad; a good summary presentation.

I didn’t find what I wanted, though — something my geologist brother told me about. Some zircons are passed through volcanos (being subducted down into the magma and then shot out again) more than once. It takes eons and is sort of like a Buddhist image for “A Very Long Time”.


orangatan 09.07.07 at 8:51 pm

Holy crap, there are actually people taking the “worst. episode. ever” approach to something as mundane as Wikipedia?

It’s good for a lot of stuff. It’s not perfect. What the hell’s to argue with?

Some of you need to get out more.


Doctor Slack 09.07.07 at 9:57 pm

The ladies love a man who knows his way around a Wiki debate, orangatan. Hasn’t anyone told you?


Larry Sanger 09.07.07 at 11:09 pm

I’m afraid you (and Sage Ross, who knows little about the project) are mistaken about the Citizendium ( It is definitely and gratifyingly growing; we have nearly tripled our number of articles since our spring launch, and doubled our number of registered accounts. Perhaps you were thinking that, if it had a chance, it would instantly start growing within an order of magnitude of Wikipedia’s growth? Of course not. It took Wikipedia itself time to grow, you know–and we have about the same word count, I think, that Wikipedia had after this amount of time. CZ will take some years before it can seriously rival Wikipedia in any way other than quality. But as long as we are on a steady growth vector, and as long as we can expect to accelerate our growth–as I think we can–there’s no reason to think we won’t be a dominant force by, say, 2010.


Sage (User:Ragesoss) 09.08.07 at 1:02 am

Dr. Sanger,

Ouch! The point is that to succeed the way you want it to, Citizendium must accelerate its growth, and that’s something the project has not managed to do yet (even if you are confident that it can do so in the future). The article creation rate graph makes the point most clearly.


Daniel Brandt 09.08.07 at 5:00 am

I hope Citizendium never grows as fast as Wikipedia. Because in order to grow that fast, they would have to allow editing under anonymous screen names, and they’d someday end up with 1,300 administrators like Wikipedia has, most of whom are anonymous and many of whom are teenagers.

It took me 20 months of anti-Wikipedia activism and 14 attempts to get my Wikipedia bio deleted. It was started by SlimVirgin, an anonymous admin whose real name is Linda Mack. She started this bio on me because she had a political agenda. Ms. Mack once worked for Pierre Salinger when Salinger was ABC bureau chief in London in 1989-1991. Salinger locked her out of her office when he came to believe that she had been working for MI5 all along. I think she’s still someone’s agent-of-influence on Wikipedia.

Ms. Mack’s early edits on Wikipedia, which provided clues to her real-life identity, were “oversighted” by Jayjg, one of her secret admin buddies with super-admin powers. “Oversighted” means that the history was wiped out. Unless you happened to have a complete dump of Wikipedia from more than two years ago, you couldn’t trace her early edits.

There is more going on within the Wikipedia cabal than meets the eye. It helps to see this if you’ve been their victim for 20 long months, and been banned several times over, and punished with more extraneous, unwanted details in your biography, the more you complained about these details.

Wikipedia should either disallow anonymous editing, or get entirely out of the business of hosting biographies of living persons. At a minimum, they should offer a no-questions-asked opt-out for the subjects of such biographies.

Wikipedia’s general counsels — last year it was Brad Patrick and now it’s Mike Godwin — claim that the Wikimedia Foundation is immune to all defamation claims and all invasion of privacy claims by subjects of biographies, because they are a mere “service provider” under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That means you have to launch what might turn into an expensive federal case and win there, just so that you can get the opportunity to petition for damages in state court. Suing administrators is not practical, because they’re often difficult to identify, and they’re from all over the world, and they will tag-team behind your back to undermine you.

Wikipedia is a huge video game, with role-players behind the curtain, pretending that they’re editing an encyclopedia. For articles on popular culture and other harmless trivia, it doesn’t matter. But when something matters to somebody, it quickly becomes a disaster zone.

Google shares at least half of the blame for this situation. It sends Wikipedia about half of Wikipedia’s total traffic.


B Wilson 09.08.07 at 7:08 am

The comparisons between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are very interesting.

Encyclopaedia Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of its brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar.

It is interesting that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing a new search engine. It is the combination of a) improved search engines and b) the success of Wikipedia that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many institutions and individuals are questioning the need to pay to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica when the content is free on the internet. Google even has free direct links to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s main database !!


Martin Wisse 09.08.07 at 9:48 am

I’m sort of sympathetic to Citizendium in that it tries to address at least one systemic flaw of Wikipedia, it’s de-emphasis of expertise. However, I doubt it will actually ever take over from Wikipedia as the dominant online encyclopedia, as Wikipidia has 1) a huge first mover advantage and 2) is easier to participate in, easier to join and create new content for and 3) for most of its content it’s good enough, even if Citizendium’s policies ensure its articles are of a higher quality.


Martin Wisse 09.08.07 at 9:50 am

Also, quantity has a quality all of its own, and at the moment Citizendium does not even have an article on Bruce Springsteen.

I’m not sure why it took Wikipedia’s content, flawed in some aspects as it may be, as its starting point rather than building things from the ground up again.


Gregory Kohs 09.08.07 at 1:20 pm

One important aspect of Wikipedia that is not being discussed here is the overwhelming evidence that the work of many thousands of volunteers is being used to financially enhance the pockets of a handful of lucky Wikimedia Foundation board members and advisers who happen to be lucky enough to also serve on the board of the for-profit Wikia, Inc. or The whole racket is detailed here:

The tight-knit web of Wikimedia and Wikia


Doctor Slack 09.08.07 at 1:55 pm

They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. Industry analysis shows that the accuracy of both encyclopedic databases is similar.



Doctor Slack 09.08.07 at 1:57 pm

(And if it’s any consolation to Daniel Brandt, which it probably isn’t, WikiPedia has by now sufficiently “jumped the shark” in public consciousness to an extent that now limits the damage the Linda Macks of the world can do.)


Axel Boldt 09.08.07 at 7:47 pm

Bi and Seth, in the discussion of the Nature study comparing the science coverage of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, you essentially argue (with some justification) that Nature is a corrupt organization that cooked the study in order to get the results they wanted. We are surprised to learn that the output of the most reputable scientific journal today cannot be trusted.

You also argue that Wikipedia’s broken model and corrupt structure imply that its output cannot be trusted. Not much surprise there.

Now, on which grounds exactly are we to trust the ouput of the Encyclopaedia Britannica editorial team?


Erik Möller 09.08.07 at 11:33 pm

Full disclosure: I am a member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation and have been a Wikipedian since 2001. I spend an alarming amount of time on Foundation matters purely as a volunteer.

In my own comparisons with other general reference works, Wikipedia tends to reflect the kind of broadened coverage one would expect from a 600 million word encyclopedia (WP) vs. a 55 million word one (Britannica Online). Mind you, Britannica has some excellent reference texts, especially in the Macropaedia. But Wikipedia does have an enormous wealth of information about subjects I consider important which simply aren’t mentioned at all in other sources.

For example, Wikipedia has some great (some not so great) overview articles about darker and lesser known aspects of US history: covert programs like MKULTRA (drug tests on US citizens), COINTELPRO (subverting “dissidents”), Project FUBELT (coup against Allende), and so forth. These are critical aspects of US history that other sources consider to be barely worthy of a footnote. Beyond conspiracy theory, here we have conspiracy fact, well-referenced and documented by quite a few reputable historians, but still not a part of most curricula.

Or look at the recent “articles of the day”: Renewable energy in Scotland,
Jersey Shore attacks of 1916
, and the olm (a blind salamader). The first topics do not seem to appear in Britannica at all, while the olm only has a brief paragraph compared with Wikipedia’s well-referenced, richly illustrated multi-page treatise.

Granted, articles about overarching topics and themes are sometimes (not always) quite terrible. Wikipedians often do a fantastic job when it comes to collecting the tiniest little details about a subject that is very narrow to begin with. You may scoff at this when the subject happens to be pop culture; personally, I find it immensely important that there exists a medium where we attempt to neutrally describe and summarize mass-produced “cultureware” that is consumed by (and, in the process, influences) millions of people.

Reading Wikipedia’s articles about video games has also given me a newfound respect for the genre; some recent games at least have rich, compelling stories that are as much deserving to be recorded and re-told as any movie. I prefer to reach my own judgment about such matters to being subjected to someone else’s sense of importance.

True: Wikipedians can be exclusionist, too. They delete webcomics that haven’t been mentioned in enough external sources. They condemn blogs as unreliable while writing in a medium that seems to be the very opposite of reliability. They struggle, internally and always, with the tension of writing on an encyclopedia that is also a wiki (or vice versa).

I personally hope that policy development will move away from the idea of “relevance” as established by some authority and purely towards whether articles can be verified and maintained. When in doubt, I’d rather have too many articles than too few. But even in this blog discussion, I recognize the same two camps that we have inside Wikipedia: those who condemn us for having articles about “crap”, and those who condemn us for deleting articles about subjects important to them. There won’t be easy solutions, but so far I think we’re striking a reasonable (if not perfect) balance between the desires for quality & quantity.

An endeavor so gigantic as Wikipedia will make friends as much as enemies. Some may dislike us for valid reasons. People like Seth Finkelstein and Daniel Brandt, who post here, have campaigned relentlessly to get their biographies deleted (and both eventually succeeded). Many individuals simply do not wish information about them to exist in a space that conveys encyclopedic authority, while being seemingly completely open to the insertion of random claims.

I respect those concerns. I think it is awful that, right now, Wikipedia puts all of its articles under the same “letterhead” of an encyclopedia, not distinguishing clearly between those that have just been created or edited by random strangers, and those that reflect the best work we can do.

We are, of course, adding a lot of metadata, which sometimes can even get in the way: that we believe an article lacks citations, that it is not neutral, too Western-centric, or any other of hundreds of “maintenance templates”, as they are called.

But this is still a very page-centric view of an article, rather than a history-centric one. After all, we do store every change ever made to any article. So we’ve been trying to figure out ways to make the history of the articles more transparent to readers. Who has worked on an article, who has looked at it? How reliable do we believe it to be?

One effort that we are driving internally for this is the “stable version” extension, AKA FlaggedRevs, which will allow designated user groups to assign quality tags to a revision. Most importantly, we want to clearly identify those revisions which we know to be free from vandalism. One could argue that, once this mechanism works well, everything else will false into place — all it really takes for wiki quality assurance to work, is for the group of “good faith contributors” to be clearly separated from bad faith attackers.

FlaggedRevs will go into a public beta on a dummy site in the next few weeks, and if all goes well, will be deployed on production sites later this year.

A concern about this particular strategy is whether it will in fact scale to the massive number of edits that we are seeing on Wikipedia every hour, every minute, every second. An alternative to human review is the use of algorithms to at least derive some information from the revision history. Luca de Alfaro’s work on trust computation is very interesting in this regard, taking into account the “survival rate” of different blocks of text by different editors for the computation of trust values that can then be assigned to them. We are working with Luca and providing him with the resources he needs for his research.

So, a combination of human quality annotation and certain heuristics will hopefully allow us to make it clearer to the reader what exactly they are looking at (has it been reviewed? are the authors members of the core community?), even allowing us to set reasonable “default views” (always showing a recently reviewed version, for example).

In other words, Wikipedia is not “done” yet. We are fully aware that in order to increase our usefulness, we need to constantly reinvent ourselves. We are always open to ideas and constructive criticism (and in fact, we tend to be our own harshest critics). I’ve met some of the smartest people I know through the Wikimedia community, and I hope and believe that we can provide a useful resource to all of humanity.

When we say, “you can improve Wikipedia”, we don’t just mean that you can edit articles on our website. Contrary to some claims, nobody is getting rich off Wikipedia, which is run by a non-profit organization. All our software is open source, and all of our content is free forever, including the freedom to run your own copy according to your own rules. (This is a freedom, for example, used by Citizendium to make and modify copies of Wikipedia articles. Sadly, CZ does not yet grant others the same freedom for its own articles, though they vaguely promise to do so at some point in the future.) We have countless open forums and are generally a fairly welcoming bunch. We don’t much like cyberstalking, trolling, bizarre conspiracy theories, edit warring, and similar types of obnoxious behavior. But that should go without saying.

I’d be happy to read your list of “5 things Wikipedia should do”, and then I’ll be equally happy to point out how the different lists are in complete opposition to each other. ;-) I also would appreciate, in the interests of full disclosure, if all participants would shed some light on their past involvement with Wikipedia in such debates. Having an axe to grind doesn’t necessarily make you wrong — but it certainly could shape or alter your perceptions. :-)


Seth Finkelstein 09.09.07 at 2:18 am

Axel (#134)

a) While not strictly a conflict-of-interest, it’d be nice if you had disclosed how extensively you’re involved in Wikipedia. Just saying.

b) The methodology problem is not complicated. Moreover, as has been pointed out, this was not a peer-reviewed study. Making a literal ad-hominem argument to support it – which is in fact the classic “OK Name” fallacy (if a big name can be associated with it, it must be true) – is the sort of behavior that reinforces my idea that Wikipedia a cult.

Erik (#135) – that’s long, but briefly:

No, no, no, run away. That’s madness. Those are the sort of topics where one should read honest-to-god BOOKS, written by EXPERTS, not the gibbering paranoia of the sort of person who is likely to camp out on that kind of article. I wouldn’t even consider it a “starting point”. You’re showing exactly why Wikipedia can be dangerous to a knowledge-seeker, where the crowd is likely to be insane.

“generally a fairly welcoming bunch” – yeah, if one drinks the Kool-Aid. If not, it can be unpleasant (full disclosure – I really didn’t like Wikipedia’s PR flack boasting about throwing me off a mailing list, which I bona-fide think was due to my irreverently talking about some legal liability strategizing that Wales didn’t want discussed. So I’m biased there, I declare it).

The topic of “getting rich off Wikipedia” is too complex to be discussed fruitfully in a comment box. While it is indeed a non-profit, that does not prevent various higher-ups from using it in more complex ways to enrich themselves. Indeed, it’s rather depressing how much exploitation of others has to be done for just a few people to make money – but this is hardly unknown in human history.


John Emerson 09.09.07 at 3:00 am

Jesus fuck, Seth. You’re a nutso grievance-collector.

There are legit issues about Wiki, but no one will ever know about them from you.

I completely agree that the slander-and-disinformation question should be addressed.


Seth Finkelstein 09.09.07 at 3:21 am

John, I’ve written two well-regarded _Guardian_ columns on problems with Wikipedia.

You’ve just proven one of my main reasons for calling Wikipedia a cult. Because if people criticize Wikipedia, they’re met with personal attack. Not by everyone, of course – but it happens enough that it’s a very clear cult-reaction.

Look at the algorithm:

1) A Wikipedia critic is likely to get some nastiness from some of Wikipedia’s more fanatical acolytes.

2) Per request above, should one disclose this possible aspect?

Got ’em – either they didn’t disclose, or they can be invalidated on personal grounds. This should tell you something about what’s so socially wrong about Wikipedia.


John Quiggin 09.09.07 at 6:15 am

I read the piece linked by Gregory Kohs at #131 and I can’t say it would lead me to stop contributing to Wikipedia. It doesn’t seem to me shocking, for example, that Jimmy Wales should talk about Wikipedia while on paid speaking engagements. Similarly, the fact that most Wikipedia movie articles link to doesn’t make Wikipedia and IMDB front – on the contrary Wikipedia is clearly competition for IMDB, and I’m sure much Wiki content is based on information found there (even if used in a way that doesn’t violate copyright).


Erik Möller 09.09.07 at 9:50 am

Random people writing about controversial, little-known aspects of US history? This is blasphemy! This is madness!

Madness? THIS .. IS .. WIKIPEDIA! ;-)

Seriously, these articles tend to attract people in denial as much as “true believers” (and quite a few reasonable, critically minded people), which – as you can see, for instance, on Talk:Project MKULTRA, tends to produce intense discussion about the validity of the sources. This is actually a highly useful process — random websites on the topic you will find will make no such effort. And if you do want to read a book on the topic, Wikipedia will provide you with plenty of references.

In the resulting article, I also find countless references to the Washington Post, the NYT, the Congressional Church Committee, the US General Accounting Office, and so forth. You don’t have to give a damn about Wikipedia to read and understand those sources. So, your reaction above .. “run away!” .. seems to be far from rational.

We should always be critical readers of everything that tries to change our perception of reality, no matter where it is published. Wikipedia has simply made this a necessary part of the reading process, rather than an optional one.


Seth Finkelstein 09.09.07 at 12:54 pm

Let’s not confuse popularism with scholarship. There’s plenty of people writing about CIA mind-control. The madness is in thinking that a process which favors the loudest and most obsessive produces good reading on the topic. I don’t doubt the end product would be well-footnoted, but that’s doesn’t necessarily have any connection to reality.

One of the deepest, non-cult (:-)) dislikes I have about Wikipedia is how, as you outline, it tries to escape intellectual responsibility by cost-shifting onto the reader. It’s a general web-2.0 formula where the organization gets a bunch of people to sound-off and have an argument, portrays the result as some sort of great civic achievement, and then in response to intellectual criticism says it’s up to the readers to figure out who was spouting nonsense, and if you don’t like that, you’re against democracy. I don’t think academics and people who value being accurate over being popular should promote that sort of thing.

[Note it’s consistent that Wikipedia works great for comics and TV because on those topics the most obsessive person is in fact very likely to be the most objectively correct!]


abb1 09.09.07 at 1:07 pm

People who criticize almost anything are met with personal attacks. A lot of enthusiasm and even a cult-like following don’t necessarily invalidate the phenomenon.


Agnana 09.09.07 at 2:13 pm

I’m a big supporter of Wikipedia for a couple of reasons. First, most of the world has essentially *no* access to the kind of information elite Euro-American academics take for granted.

Additionally, in my own field (oceanography) Wikipedia at least makes an effort to explain complex processes at a basic level. One of the advantages of Wikipedia’s open editing policy is that it keeps scientists like myself from hiding behind jargon. And if some teenager wants to help me increase scientific literacy by pointing out where I’m unclear or mistaken- that’s okay with me!

An interesting sidelight. My wife recently finished a book on the history of the written word. It is amusing how many of the reactions to Wikipedia parallel elite reactions to the introductions of such technologies as the printing press, or the Korean phonetic script. “It makes (fill in the blank) too easy! Anyone can do it!” Academic elites like myself need to be careful that our focus on the truth isn’t just another power play.


Seth Finkelstein 09.09.07 at 4:03 pm

Agnana, I’m not an academic, my dispute isn’t “too easy” – it’s that it works off a kind of anti-intellectualism to produce something often half-baked and then deflects criticism with demagoguery (and when you point out it’s half-baked, they say “It’ll be fully baked someday, eventually, and how about working for free for us”)

The inverse of elitism is a manipulative populist argument, and Wikipedia has a lot of that.


John Emerson 09.09.07 at 10:00 pm

Seth, I’m not in any sense a member of a Wiki cult (I never have posted there). I’ve tried half a dozen times to explain that I’ve found Wiki to be an extremely useful resource, superior to the actually-available alternatives. I’ve made that point in several different ways. To the Wiki-haters, this all seems irrelevant (“anecdotal” in Dr.Slack’s words).

I waited until #137 to get personal. Your monomaniac persistence is what turned me. I usually get personal much quicker than that, as we all know. And I didn’t call you a motherfucker, which I do whenever appropriate.

If Wales is secretly profiting from others’ work, I would see a problem in that. Frankly, though, if I were doing Wikis I wouldn’t care. Wiki would be a gratifying outlet for me I don’t presently have.

I also agree about the slander aspect. Thou I wish that Seth had been quicker to disclose his personal grudge.

But a lot of energy has been put into badmouthing Wiki as a resource, and it’s all wrong. There’s been this tendentious comparison to a nonexistent ideal resource, and I find that annoying.


Seth Finkelstein 09.09.07 at 11:28 pm

Joh, Erik ASKED “I also would appreciate, in the interests of full disclosure, if all participants would shed some light on their past involvement with Wikipedia in such debates.” – I wish I hadn’t replied to that part, since you immediately seized upon it to do a true ad hominem. If you want to consider that a winning argument, nothing I say will change your mind.


John Emerson 09.10.07 at 1:15 am

It’s not a winning argument. It does make it easier to understand why you’re saying what you’re saying. I had already asked whether Wales had screwed your wife or peed on your cornflakes before that information came out, and the information helped things fall into place.

My whole argument has been this: Wikipedia has been very useful to me, and while I know that there are certain problems (which I have acknowledged several times), we should at least recognize that Wikipedia is a valuable resource. You refuse to do this, and I now think I understand why.

Let it drop. Or at least narrow your attack to one which is defensible.

And you might consider not asserting without evidence that people who disagree with you are cultists.


John Quiggin 09.10.07 at 2:21 am

Disclosure: As stated in the post, I’ve made quite a few contributions to Wikipedia, particularly in relation to global warming and related topics.


Gregory Kohs 09.10.07 at 3:06 am

Doesn’t surprise me that John Quiggen would pretty much miss my points quite entirely, as he found them not to be provocative. Just as an example, my concern is not about Jimmy Wales speaking about Wikipedia on paid engagements — it’s his speaking about WIKIA, INC. on those engagements. Also, note that Quiggen makes no mention of the very important concern that the exact same person who is responsible for the financial books at the Wikimedia Foundation is the exact same person who is responsible for the financial books at Wikia, Inc. And this same person has been found by an Illinois judge to have inappropriately scattered over $800,000 that he owes a plaintiff. I grow weary of trying to enlighten the minds of people who can so phenomenally miss such important points.


Charles Mattthews 09.11.07 at 1:29 am

Seth is not quite in the same boat as other WP critics; I would say that he has been on the end of some hostility that was less deserved. (I have edited enWP for four years, under my real name, and would be counted in various ways an insider.) What I find odd, still, is that criticisms still tend to be per-article. The whole point of WP, spread over so many languages, is that it is hypertext, written largely by people who see it as hypertext. So mathematics and history and geography get integrated. There has been nothing quite like it before; and WP remains on the side of the angels, whatever its deficiencies, bringing people together globally to work purposefully together.

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