The Real-World Problem with Wikis

IntroWeb20 - 29

This morning I had a lengthy chat with Steve Watson from the Buffalo News while having coffee at the campus Starbucks. I don’t think it was for anything specific other than for him to get a pulse on the Tech or Web 2.0 world. He’s interesting in writing about politicians claiming their bios on Wikipedia, and while we chatted a bit about that, I moved on to looking at the big picture of Wikis. I brought him to Flu Wiki and in plain English (not geek), I shared some thoughts off the top of my head:

Quality issues (i.e. accuracy and reliability of information)
– Real-world conflicts on what or which version should get published

Speed: Live, real-time publishing
Relatively cheap to maintain
Relatively easy to use
Collaborative, democratic knowledge sharing
Grassroots empowerment

It’s really a chicken and egg situation between academics and wiki editors. Wikis need to build reputation as a reliable source, which relies on enough people citing it. However, quality is a major issue since it is reason enough not to cite wikis for major research work (though we can cite specific wiki page versions). Still, isn’t the general trends for most Web 2.0 services = the lack of quality?

Think of any open social bookmarking, tagging, recommendation system (e.g. Digg) and name one service that nails this problem in the head. Recognize that the problem may be an exceptional case for Wikipedia since it has to be specific and accurate. Flickr, for example, doesn’t have to be concerned with the problem since it is searched with a free vocabulary of tags and there is less criteria on what is worthy of publishing. In a way, Wikipedia and most other wikis, intrinsically needs to be strict.

Most Web 2.0 services share a common trait of getting spammed, vandalized, or googlebombed in various forms. How does Wikipedia deal with it? Right now I think it relies solely on the goodwill of it’s expert contributors to spot quality issues, discuss if necessary, then fix it.

As you can see, this post isn’t really complete. I’m still struggling to figure out more Pros and Cons for Wikis as I am likely to encounter similar queries in future. In the mean time, I believe that the rewards still outweigh the risks of using Wikis. Here’s the maxim you should follow if you want to be safe while working with Wikis: “It’s a great place to start, but not to end your research”

6 thoughts on “The Real-World Problem with Wikis

  1. Wikis may be “grassroots” in the sense that they are nonhierarchical and open to all comers, but they are no more “democratic” than any other mob or crowd. Anarchic is a more appropriate word to describe the purpose-built mob that is a wiki. The loudest, the strongest, or the most patient will always prevail against the rest of the mob. Give wiki users the chance to vote on changes and, then, you’re approaching democracy.

    In any case, in the happy land of information creation and publishing, being “democratic” is a not a worthy substitute for accurate and trustworthy information. I’d rather have access to one person who is right than one million people who are wrong .
    Obviously,though, polling the readers as an editing device is impractical. Wikis, then, are likely to remain democratic only in the sense that pretty much any anonymous individual has the same ability to play contributor or editor as the next guy. Changes are applied to particular pieces of content not necessarily because they’re erroneous or clumsily written, but simply because someone wants to change them. And a desire to see the wiki publish accurate material is only one of the motivations for taking an axe to someone else’s content.

    Unless knowledgable people are given the authority to step in and declare an entry as “Done”, the loop continues.

    Content remains vulnerable, whether it ought to be or not. It’s sure to remain unscathed only if no one cares to change it. So, the credibiity of a wiki tends to migrate toward the lowest common denominator sustained by indifference.

  2. I wrote about a study done by a science journal “Nature”, where they compared the science articles from Wikipedia and Britannica through peer review process.

    The jist of it is that although Wikipedia had its share of errors, so did Britannica, at least in articles pertaining to the sciences. I guess the real question to ask is how much accuracy and quality do you really expect from an “Encyclopedia?” Its meant to be informational as a general reference tool, not a scholarly work. There are subject specific Wikis and Encyclopedias out there that will have more accurate articles in their specialty.

    I’ve used Wikipedia as a research tool for quickly finding information on topics I am unfamiliar with. It provides a quick laymen’s version on most topics I have come across, with references and “linknotes” that direct me to the source of the information. From there I can follow the citations and books for more scholarly work. This is also the same thing I would have done with a regular print encyclopedia.

    I also find that Wikipedia articles can have small little treasures of information that you wouldn’t expect in a traditional encyclopedia. Some examples are the “Plagiarism” article that lists famous examples of plagiarism. When I get the part in my lectures in my research classes, I show students the list on this article as a way to get them to understand the affects of plagiarism. One, that it can haunt you for the rest of your life; Two, that you only see the famous people caught with plagiarism, but what about the ones that never became famous because they plagiarized.

    In an ideal world, Wikipedia would never have a mistakes, because the person who spots a mistake also has the power to fix them. That means that in the time it takes to publicize a mistake found on Wikipedia, it could have been fixed.

  3. BillG: Do you suggest some form of moderator powers to more responsible users of Wikipedia? Kinda like giving higher karma points to reward good behavior, and thus more power to them?

    LibraRonin: Two things…
    The Wikipedia vs. Britannica article does give Wikipedia more validity points. One social perspective on this issue is that we are paying special attention to Wikipedia’s situation on accuracy when it could have been commonplace for inaccuracies in regular print material as well. Kind of looking in hindsight. Good call.

    That’s a great Wikipedia application you’ve given, showing the effects of plagerism.

  4. A very interesting issue this, that I suspect has already been on everyone’s mind who’s ever used any wiki, social bookmarking, or tagging tool.

    Excellent replies too, which I will not try to imitate. I did ask myself the same question the other day, though, with the public launch of Newsvine. Is this one going to become anarchic chaos now or a valuable alternative to mainstream media?

    Love to hear your thoughts on this specific case sometime; like where would you position Newsvine in the scale between democratic vs. reliable? Or what are its benifits to either user group?

  5. Newsvine did mention somewhere that they seek the middle ground, between quality submissions from AP and user submissions by posting articles/links. The added Digg functionality gives some control to the users, but overall effect is moderated. Will have to digg up some concrete numbers on this.

  6. More and more authors are citing their references in Wikipedia articles, which for me adds validity. (As it would with a print source). I love Wikipedia for popculture stuff. It’s search engine is awesome, too.

    I hope Steve Watson will be citing his sources in his next article!

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