If I drew a detailed map

Several months ago, I wrote (regarding the Wikipedia page on ‘anomie‘):

For what I’d want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called ‘anomie’ and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What’s not there is any sense of the history of the concept

I was reminded of this argument by Tom‘s recent comments on the ‘penis envy’ page (“I know this article on penis envy is bullshit, and it’s been on my ‘to do’ list of things to fix for weeks, and I’ve got nowhere“). The problem here is that making things more complicated is a lot harder than keeping them simple. What’s worse, the kind of people who are critical of other people’s simplifications tend also to be critical of their own work, which means that getting the complicated version written and getting it right is a long and painstaking job. Which, in turn, means that in the absence of serious incentives it’s quite likely not to get done. Wikipedia’s native system of informal incentives breaks down, in other words, where the workload gets too large – and, when it comes to making things more complicated (and getting it right), the workload starts at ‘large’ and goes up.

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day (hi Chris!) when he came up with a proposal for filling the incentive gap. The idea is to mobilise peer pressure among the population of disgruntled complexifiers. What we want isn’t so much an army of subject experts as a group of people who mistrust simple explanations and are good at digging out and writing down the underlying complications, in any of a number of fields. Hacks rather than professors, essentially – but good hacks. A list of apparently oversimplified Wikipedia articles could then be drawn up, and each one could be offered to names picked from the pool. I’ll just reiterate that I’m not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds. The Wikipedia articles I’ve mentioned left me with a stack of unanswered questions, which I’d happily devote a few evenings to answering if I was being paid to do so – or if I had any incentive to do so. A virtual tap on the shoulder from an online group of pedantic curmudgeons might just do the job.

That just leaves the task of assembling the group. Here, Chris made the brilliant suggestion of using PledgeBank. Something like this:

I will take part in a group of volunteers who will improve Wikipedia by correcting and extending inaccurate and simplistic entries on social science concepts, but only if another 99 people do so too.

I think it could work. What do you think?

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2 Comments

  1. selkins
    Posted 5 January 2006 at 18:33 | Permalink | Reply

    Seems like a good approach. I signed up for a Wikipedia account last week, but haven’t worked through all the guidelines yet. The Wikipedia Portal page (when logged in, anyway) also points out things they think need doing.

    You may also be interested in http://bountycounty.org/ — “Coding bounties for free and open source software projects.” I haven’t looked yet to see which is more in use.

  2. Chris Applegate
    Posted 4 February 2006 at 01:42 | Permalink | Reply

    The bounty comment above reminded me that Wikipedia itself operates a Bounty Board, where people promise to donate extra money to the Wikimedia foundation if their article of choice is brought up to featured article status. Here it is financial rather than social capital that is the primary focus, but one does not preclude the other; it is still a good incentive for a collective calling-to-arms.

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