Thursday, June 3, 2010

Crowd-Sourced Encyclopedia Shows Signs of Crowd Authorship

Larry Sanger* co-founded Wikipedia with heady ideals in tow: was launched on January 15, 2001; its first article was on the letter U. Sanger soon realized there was nothing silly about the idea; he began to promote it with near-missionary zeal. He also set out several guiding principles: that it should maintain a neutral point of view; that contributors should be allowed to make mistakes and learn by doing; and that the goal of each edit was not perfection, but improvement.

Somehow the idea caught on. In the first month, Wikipedia had 1,000 articles. In one year, it would have 20,000 articles. In five years, it would become the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history.
Unlike so many idealistic enterprises, it succeeded brilliantly, and in ways that repay even the most far-fetched of hopes:
Paradoxically, the slapdash quality of some early entries actually enticed new contributors. Visitors who came to scoff discovered that they could make improvements with a few strokes of the keyboard. Wikipedia benefited from a virtuous cycle: the bigger it grew, the more useful it became; the more useful it became, the bigger it grew.

Today, Wikipedia boasts more than 3.2 million articles — far outpacing venerable rivals such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica in both breadth and depth.
Suck it, Britannica! Alas, Wikipedia's success has not been absolute, and its shortcomings took Sanger from champion to apostate:
Sanger wasn’t worried about breadth or depth. He was worried about authority ... [he] soon found himself preoccupied with preventing the project from slipping into anarchy. By October 2001, Wikipedia had 13,000 articles, and new contributors were arriving every minute. Graffiti and vandalism were increasingly common ... some contributors wanted to use Wikipedia to broadcast their political views or personal opinions. Worse, self-important windbags sometimes reverted the changes of genuine experts because they preferred their own phrasing or focused on pedantic quibbles. “There was a growing problem,” Sanger later wrote. “Persistent and difficult contributors tend to drive away better, more valuable contributors.”
It's easy to look back on the internets triumphalism of the late 1990s-early 2000s and sneer at what now strikes us as sheer naivety; on the other hand, I hereby sneer in that way: I believe Sanger's quarrel with the crowd-sourced encyclopedia he helped found is that it frequently comes across as though written by members of a crowd.

Oddly enough, or so it strikes me, Sanger clearly sees the fallacy of blaming technology for people's misuses of it, as he stated in his response to Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Sanger:
It is ridiculous to bemoan a state which is self-created; that is a sign of weakness of will, of indiscipline, not of victimhood. Carr actually blames it on "computer engineers and software coders" who build things like Google—which is silly. Indeed, to that extent, Carr profoundly misunderstands the nature of the problem: to pretend that you can blame others (programmers, no less!) for your unwillingness to think long and hard is only a sign of how the problem itself resides within you. It is ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself.
It remains silly if you blame the problem on coders who build things like Wikipedia. There is no cure for stupid, nor is there an app for ridding the world of stupid. We are the ones we've been waiting for in this respect too, arguably this respect above all others: we ourselves have to police our own stupid, knowing, as we must, that it will persistently surface, infiltrate, creep in, bubble up, and otherwise leak into every seam and crevice of all our designs.

In fairness to Sanger, the truth is, Wikipedia is one of the central examples through which we gained today's world-weary awareness of the limitations of crowd-sourced information on the internets. Google is another, blogs are another, and the list goes on. By now, it is old hat that Wikipedia can and sometimes does serve as a platform for kooks, cranks, trolls, weirdos, obsessives, hacks, axe-grinders, pedantic quibblers, and worse. This was not obviously inevitable going in, any more than the idea itself was obviously a winner. It can serve as yet another object lesson in that which we already should know if we choose to use it that way.

Meanwhile, I continue to adore and cherish Wikipedia, and continue to seek it as a first stop for information -- never, however, as The Last Word on any given topic. The same applies to Encyclopedia Britannica, incidentally. Even members of crowds with advanced degrees and fine British accents can and will get things wrong for all the familiar reasons.

You can trust me implicitly, dear reader, when I confirm, from my own experience, all the details of this bit from the Wikipedia entry on garter snakes:
The saliva of a garter snake may be toxic to amphibians and other small animals. For humans, a bite is not dangerous, though it may cause slight itching, burning, and/or swelling. Most garter snakes also secrete a foul-smelling fluid from postanal glands when handled or harmed.
Your implicit trust was misplaced: I can confirm the smell, but I cannot confirm that it originates from a gland, let alone a postanal gland. I have also never actually been bitten by one of these snakes despite many, many provocations. I'm just a guy with a blog who used to scout around my childhood neighborhood for garter snakes.

* Maybe it counts as a disclaimer that I was, apparently, a classmate of Larry Sanger. I say "apparently" because, unless he was one of the nameless many I regularly humbled on the badminton courts, I don't have the slightest recollection of him. I might well have sat through some of the same philosophy classes he did since he graduated only a year ahead of me, but his name and face draw blanks. If it's any consolation to anyone, I can't imagine he remembers me any better. You'd think such a small campus would imply everyone knows everyone, but this neglects the fact that introversion is only one of the more common tips of the emotionally-unstable iceberg lurking in every single Reed student's mind. Every. Single. One. The well-adjusted types are weeded out within a semester, if not the first half hour of a campus visit. Have I talked about Reed enough here? I could go on. Our self-regard knows no bounds!

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