Mar 11

Wikipedia and The Consumer Internet

I was thinking today about something I have thought about before, but a new connection happened in my mind. It all started with Wikipedia. I use Wikipedia a lot, in fact I use it enough that I recently felt compelled to make a small donation, as I usually do for open projects I rely on that need support. I have found Wikipedia to be generally pretty accurate, particularly if the topic is a technical one. The way I assess accuracy in any type of source is to take a topic I happen to know a lot about, look at what the source says, and ask “Did they get it right?” When I do this with Wikipedia, I tend to find that they do get it right, and in fact I find they do a lot better than most of the media on this particular test. At the same time, I often encounter people who say they don’t trust Wikipedia, and it has become common to hear that teachers, for instance, will prohibit students from using Wikipedia at all as a source of information. To my mind this is a very interesting disconnect, and I think there may be larger implications we can tease out about this.

The first thing that comes to my mind is that this rejection is a lazy, minimum effort path to feeling sophisticated. It is minimum effort because you don’t have to actually assess the quality of the information. You may even be discouraged from attempting to do an assessment by a school policy or by a consensus of the establishment. Going along with everyone else is always the path of least resistance. But I also think there is a seductive pull to the idea that you can appear sophisticated by giving a sad but knowing look while saying “I would never trust a source like Wikipedia.> After all, they let anyone write and edit Wikipedia. This is so unlike the highly reliable media which only lets very competent people like Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and Glenn Back present information to the rest of us.

Reliability of information

Of course, the above is somewhat oversimplified, but in both directions. As to Wikipedia, they do not, in fact, let just anyone do whatever they want on the site. There are controls and safeguards in place that catch a lot of the problems, and the ones that don’t get caught right away are usually because no one was looking at the page to begin with. As with any open system that relies on “many eyeballs make bugs shallow”, you must first make sure many eyeballs are indeed looking. Every open project has this problem, and how you solve it is probably worthy of a good book in itself. But anyone who uses Wikipedia regularly knows that in fact if you edit a page, your edit will probably go on a list to be reviewed by someone else with a lot of Wikipedia experience. And they have riules in place, such as you cannot edit your own page in Wikipedia. (This only applies to celebrities, of course, since you and I probably don’t qualify to even have a page on Wikipedia). They also tend to require independent corroboration from other sources. As an example, please look at the page for Earned Value Management. This topic may look like all greek to you, but it happens to be a page I have referred to more than once since I am in this line of work. The information is very accurate. And if you scroll down to the bottom of the page, you will see they have a good list of references, and they are the right references. They used Quentin Fleming’s book as a reference, for instance, he really did write the book on this topic.

Now as regards the so-called “Main Stream Media”, picking on Judith Miller, Jayson Blair, and Glenn Beck does involve a certain amount of snark, but it’s my blog and I’ll be snarky when I feel like it. But the deeper issue is that the press is not nearly as open, and therefore is less likely to catch and correct errors. I frequently find a Wikipedia page where an editor has posted, at the top of the page, a notice to the effect that the page needs more independent sources before it can be acceptable. Have you ever seen this on a story in your newspaper? Of course not. We are supposed to assume that somehow there is someone on the background who is doing this, but clearly this does not always happen. In fact, any media outlet that is in business to make money has a strong incentive to push the other way. Being the first to break a story matters, and getting independent verification only adds time. And then who are the sources for those stories? Most newpapers, for instance, will have policies about limiting or not using unnamed sources, but they manage to prevent such policies from interfering with a good story. And that means they can be manipulated to publish stories that are either not true (Iraq has nuclear weapons!!), or seriously slanted.

Now, the point of this analysis is not that Wikipedia is a better source than the Washington Post, though if you catch me on the right day I might be interested in that discussion. The real issue is that you should not trust anything you read or anything you see on television or anything you hear on the radio without first doing some thinking and testing. And that is why I called the rejection of Wikipedia by many teachers “lazy”. The real point that any good teacher should be making is that you need to assess the validitiy of all sources, to question the internal consistency of their reports, to see how they match up with other sources. That is the only way to have an intelligent understanding of what they are saying. It isn’t fool-proof of course, but it gives you a fighting chance.

The Consumer Internet

And that leads the final connection in this essay. Doing what I have suggested is not easy, it demands engagement with the material and genuine thought. That much is fairly obvious. But the more subtle point is that it starts moving you in the direction of being a participant/producer rathan a passive consumer when it comes to information. And there are powerful forces that very much want to make all of us into passive consumers. And that would mean losing one of the great opportunities that this technology gives us.

When the Internet was first developed, no one thought it was particularly important, so no one bothered with the fact that the Internet is inherently a much more participatory medium. After all, if it is just a toy for a few geeks, who cares? So things like Web sites, then blogs, could flourish without anyone noticing. But as the Internet became more popular and therefore more important, those powerful forces had to take notice, and devise ways to get control. Many of the intellectual property arguments are really about this, when you look at it. Remix is inherent in how the Internet works now, and interest groups are working hard to sue it into oblivion. If you quote from an AP story or a newspaper article, you get a cease-and-desist or even a suit. Same thing if you take a small bit from a song, or a movie, or a TV show. This is certainly part of the insanity of the “Culture of Ownership” and of copyright run amok, but do not overlook that it is an attack on people being productive with the information around them. Bach and Beethoven would be criminals in the current regime because they too were remixers of the music around them. In one form of this principle, attributed to Picasso, it reads “good artists copy, great artists steal.” In fact, almost by definition to be a creative and productive participant in society you have to engage with the cultural material around you. This was always understood until such time as a few corporations found they had a financial interest in tying up everything.

So now we find ourselves fighting to keep a medium of creativity and participation. That is one of the major issues with network neutrality. The carriers and the corportate producers of culture want to regain control and turn all of us back into passive consumers of culture rather than active producers. Why is it that everyone has faster download speeds than upload speeds? The carriers will mumble about technical issues, but these are not the real point. Equal upload and download capacity is just as technically feasible as the system we have now. But the truth comes out when they say that “no one needs that much upload capacity”. Well, we do if we are equal participants in the generation of culture, and that is the point. If we start generating our culture, maybe we don’t have as much need to buy it from the RIAA or from Hollywood. And that is something that matters when we talk about Wikipedia. For all of its faults, and there are many faults, it is in the last analysis an expression of creativity that comes from people, not from anointed gate-keepers.

I think we all need to kep this in mind and fight to keep a participatory, creative, and generative Internet. And while you are at it, support places like Wikipedia and the EFF that are trying to keep it that way.

1 comment

    • Eric on February 26, 2014 at 4:06 am

    It may make sense that Wikipedia would have more reliable articles about academic topics than pop culture ones, considering that the latter are more prone to rumors and hearsay.

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