The vagaries of science

The slightly oxymoronic Britannica Blog has recently hosted a series of posts on Web 2.0, together with responses from Clay Shirky, Andrew Keen and others. The debate’s been of very variable quality, on both the pro- and the anti- side; reading through it is a frustrating experience, not least because there’s some interesting stuff in among the strawman target practice (on both sides) and the tent-preaching (very much on both sides). As I said in response to a (related) David Weinberger post recently, it’s not always clear whether the pro-Web 2.0 camp are talking about how things are (what knowledge is like & how it works) or about how things are changing – or about how they’d like things to change. The result is that developments with the potential to be hugely valuable (like, say, Wikipedia) are written about as if they had already realised their potential, and attempts to point out flaws or collateral damage are dismissed as naysaying. On the anti- side, the danger is of an equally unthinking embrace of how things are – or how they were before all this damn change started happening.

All this is by way of background to some comments I left on danah boyd‘s contribution (which is well worth reading in full), and may explain (if not excuse) the impatient tone. danah, then me:

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works?

Because I could give a 20-credit course on ‘how Wikipedia works’ and not get to the bottom of it. It’s complex. It’s interesting. I happen to believe it’s an almighty mess, but it’s a very complex and interesting mess. For practical purposes “Don’t cite it” is quicker.

Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource?

This is a false opposition: two different activities with different timescales, different skillsets and different rewards. I get an idea, I write it down – generally it won’t let me go until I’ve written it down. I look at what I’ve written down, and I want to rewrite it – quite often it won’t let me go until I’ve rewritten it. All of this takes slabs of time, but they’re slabs of time spent engrossed with ideas and language, my own and other people’s – and the result is a real and substantial contribution to a conversation, by an identifiable speaker.

I look at a bad Wikipedia article [link added] and I don’t know where to start. What I’d like to do is delete the whole thing and put in the stub of a decent article that I can come back to later, but I sense that this will be regarded as uncool. What I don’t want to do is clamber through the existing structure of an entry I think shouldn’t have been written in the first place correcting an error here or there, because that’s a long-drawn-out task that’s both tedious and unrewarding. And what I particularly don’t want to do is return to the article again and again over a period of weeks because my edits are getting reverted by someone hiding behind a pseudonym.

(I think what Wikipedia anonymity has shown, incidentally, is that people really don’t like anonymity. Wikipedia has produced its own stable identities – and its own authorities, based on the reputation particular Wikipedia editors have established within the Wikipedia community.)

Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry?

Well, yes. If I get a journal article accepted or I’m commissioned to write an encyclopedia article, I’m joining an established conversation among fellow experts. What I’ve written stays written and gets cited – in other words, it contributes to the conversation, and hence to the formation of the cloud of knowledge within the discipline. And it goes on my c.v. – because it can be retrieved as part of a reviewable body of work. If I write for Wikipedia I don’t know who I’m talking to, nobody else knows who’s writing, and what I’ve written can be unwritten at any moment. And it would look ridiculous on my c.v. – because they’ve only got my word that it is part of my body of work, assuming it still exists in the form in which I wrote it.

The way things are now, knowledge lives in domain-sized academic conversations, which are maintained by gatekeepers and authorities. Traditional encyclopedias make an effort to track those conversations, at least in their most recently crystallised (serialised?) form. Wikipedia is its own conversation with its own authorities and its own gatekeepers. For the latest state of the Wikipedia conversation to coincide with the conversation within an established domain of knowledge is a lucky fluke, not a working assumption.

Update The other big difference between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia (as someone known only as ‘bright’ reminded me, in comments over here) is that the latter gets much more use. From my response:

Comparisons with the Britannica are interesting as far as they go – and I don’t believe they do Wikipedia any favours – but they don’t address the way that Wikipedia is used, essentially as an extension of Google. When I google for information I’m not hoping to find an encyclopedia article. Generally, Britannica articles used to appear on the first page of hits, but not right at the top; usually you’d see a fan sites, hobby sites, school sites, scholarly articles and domain-specific reference works on the same page, and usually the fan sites, etc, would be just as good. (I stopped using the Britannica altogether as soon as it went paywalled.) If all that had happened was that Britannica results had been pushed down from number 8 to number 9, with their place being taken by Wikipedia, I doubt we’d be having this conversation. What’s happened is that, for topic after topic, Wikipedia is number 1; the people who would have run all those fan sites and hobby sites are either writing for Wikipedia instead or they’re not bothering, since after all Wikipedia is already there. (Or else the sites are still out there, but they’re way down the search result list because they’re not getting the traffic.) It’s a monoculture; it’s a single point of failure, in a way that encyclopedias aren’t. And it’s the last thing that should have happened on the Web. (I’ll own up to a lingering Net idealism. Internet 0.1, I think it was.)

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