Wikipedia and sausages

Sometime in the next couple of days, the one-millionth article will be added to the English-language version of Wikipedia. It’s an impressive achievement for a project that’s only five years old , and it’s already clear that Wikipedia has surpassed its main competitors, Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta in many important respects. Neither Britannica’s 200-year history and expert staff nor the Microsoft juggernaut have proved a match for Wikipedia’s ten thousand or so regular contributors, and thousands of occasional helpers. While many criticisms of Wikipedia have been made (as with most things, the most comprehensive source for such criticisms is Wikipedia, none has really dented either Wikipedia’s credibility or its growth.

Still, as Bismarck is supposed to have said

If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”

The process by which Wikipedia entries are produced is, in many cases, far from edifying: the marvel, as with democracies and markets, is that the outcomes are as good as they are.

I’ve been active on Wikipedia for several months now, and found out some interesting things.

* A visit to the recent changes page shows that there are between 50 and 100 changes each minute, or something like 100 000 changes per day. A fair number are cancelled out by subsequent reverts (either in response to vandalism or in the course of an edit war). A lot of others are very minor improvements, particularly in areas like cross-linking and categorisation. Still every little helps and the cumulative impact of all those changes in quite impressive. Although the quality of individual Wikipedia entries is highly variable, the structure as a whole is more powerful and robust than that of the competition.

* If you think the blogosphere is riddled with factions, flames and fury, wait until you get involved in editing a controversial page in Wikipedia (this includes anything to do with sex, politics or religion of course, but there have been bitter controversies about quite trivial issues like capitalisation/capitalization and spelling). At least with blogs, all your critics can do is flame you in the comments section or on their own blogs. In Wikipedia, they can wipe out your brilliant work altogether or edit it into a travesty of your original intention.

* Entries for living people (and for musical groups, companies, blogs and so on) are particularly problematic, and have become more so after the Siegenthaler affair. Given the problems that can be caused by errors or deliberate falsehoods in biographical entries, the guardians of Wikipedian orthodoxy have become increasingly pernickety both about citation of evidence for claims about the inclusion of such claims in the first place. It’s quite odd to watch a lengthy debate over whether someone is or isn’t notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, especially since, as with most things Wikipedian, anyone, however uninformed they may be themselves, is entitled to offer an opinion

* A lot of Wikipedians are particularly dismissive of blogs – ‘the ultimate vanity press’ is one of the kinder descriptions I’ve seen. Sean Bonner suggests that the anti-blog faction think blogs are just rumors about kittens and stuff. I blame Belle for this. More seriously, I suspect that there’s a clash between the collectivist ethos of Wikipedia, at least as regards the final product, and the more traditional authorial role of bloggers.

* Despite all the above Wikipedia is good and getting better. Not long after the Siegenthaler controversy, Nature did a comparison of Britannice and Wikipedia on a set of science topics, selected without looking at either. Wikipedia had marginally more errors, but covered some topics omitted by EB (I can’t find a source for this right now, but I remember reading it).

39 thoughts on “Wikipedia and sausages

  1. Lurch, Francis and Harald have it about right.

    One place where Wikipedia *can* be usefully cited is as a readable, short summary on a peripheral topic in an area the intended readers are not experts in.

  2. The Bettina article is interesting. The early version was arch, fun and opinionated, but it has now settled down to being dull and dishonest, because it does not point to her ideological stance.

    Generally, for me, one of the values of Wikipedia is that it can at least point to the contentious issues.

  3. I think that Wikipedia ranks with Google as the possibly the most effective resources we have yet developed for sharing knowledge and information (not quite the same thing…yet).

    Very few of us imagined either 10 years ago – I wonder what we’ll be using in 2016?

  4. John, I don’t see how you can interpret Carr’s piece as special pleading. His point is that the widely touted Nature article is not as authoritative as spruikers claim. Carr’s point about science and technical coverage is made in explaining the weaknesses of the Nature findings.

    Introducing popular claims by others is not relevant, and I doubt a skilled writer such as Carr would ever have praised Wikipedia cultural and internet content. In the sense you refer to internet articles, which is in the context of cultural discussion, they are not scientific and technical articles at all. Carr is referring to articles in scientific and technical disciplines by specialists in the relevant fields. Very few so-called internet articles fit into that category, with the exception of computer science and networking articles, which comprise only a small part of that category.

  5. Tony, I think you’ve misread my response. My observation is that it’s widely recognised that WIkipedia is strong on Internet-related topics and popular culture (though, to be fair, Carr criticises the quality of some entries in the latter field). It’s also an easily checkable fact that Wikipedia covers more topics than do its competitors.

    If you start, as Carr does, by conceding that Wikipedia is also likely to be relatively strong on scientific and technical topics, it becomes very hard to sustain the claim that the shift from EB to Wikipedia is for the worse.

    No doubt it’s useful to deflate claims that Wikipedia is comprehensively superior to the alternatives, but Carr seems to me to want to claim more than this.

  6. PML sensitivity to what we call Holland/Netherlands in English.

    At an international conference I once referred to (and supported) a submission from “our colleagues from Holland”.

    “Why do you not include me?” said the leader of the “Dutch” delegation, in English more aligned than mine with that spoken in England. “I am from Freisia!”

    So yes you can reserve the right to use a term of your choice for a group, but do not be amazed if that leads to miscommunication or worse.

  7. DC, the miscommunication – when speaking English – comes from the damned Dutch failing to learn and teach English usage descriptively but instead assert their own views prescriptively. After all, “Holland” is anyway a generic term in English, albeit archaic, used in places like Lincolnshire.

    If they want to create confusion, I am perfectly happy for them to fall on their faces. But I am not happy for them to create confusion in our own understanding of our own historical background knowledge. Do the Swiss object to being generally known for just one of their early cantons? I am no more willing to confound the issue of Holland/Netherlands than Switzerland/Helvetia.

  8. We in “The Netherlands” use the same pars pro toto for the UK: in coloquial Dutch we use the term “Engeland”. That doesn’t mean it is correct for an encyclopedia entry.

    Frustrating isnt it, when your wiki entries are censored?

  9. Another strange use of English language I encountered when living in Britain was that british people announced they were “going on holiday in Europe” when they actually were going to visit the continent.

    The english wiki is not british.

  10. Dogz,

    I seem to recall that the reason for French being an official language at the Olympic games is that a Frenchman revived these games around 1900.

  11. HE, the term “Holland” is correct for an encyclopaedia entry for the whole country – when the work in question is in the English language. “Holland” is still in common use (see the recent article in the Times on baby euthanasia in Holland [sic – it’s in the headline]).

    That means that this kind of censorship is imposing a prescriptive rather than a descriptive approach to the English language. It’s ringbarking, and quite the wrong approach for English (unlike, say, French).

    Note that none of this is a British-centric comment. It’s a comment centred on anchoring the present, past and future – retaining the value of the language as a transmitter without haveing a risk of it being reworked for an agenda no matter how well intentioned that may be in any individual case. See also Churchill’s comments on Siam/Thailand.

  12. English language wiki is international and not british. For your local use of the word Holland the disambiguation page was invented.

    Holland is properly a region within the Netherlands, now divided into two provinces: North Holland and South Holland
    In English, Holland is often colloquially used as synonym for the whole of The Netherlands
    The Kingdom of Holland was a puppet state covering the area of The Netherlands during the Napoleonic area 1806-1810

  13. Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead 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. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. It is the combination of a) the success of Wikipedia and b) improved search engines that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many libraries, schools & individuals are questioning the need to pay for sets of expensive books, or to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, when the content is free on the internet, and much more comprehensive.

    Over the next year or so we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in a Wikipedia-dominated landscape.

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