Wikipedia and its limitations

Wikipedia – the online encyclopaedia which anyone can edit or contribute to – dominates much of the provision of information on the internet. It’s not just that the site is massive – or that it has huge levels of traffic – but also on a huge range of searches people plug into Google or Yahoo or MSN or some other search engine – there is Wikipedia, sitting somewhere near the top – if not at the top – of the search results. Being the first or nearly the first port of call on so many hunts for information makes it hugely influential.

Wikipedia hasn’t been without its controversies. Indeed, coming to the idea for the first time, having an encyclopedia that anyone – yes, anyone – can go and edit seems an invitation to serve up a mix of poor quality information, conflicting edits, extremism, intolerance and barely literate entries. If you wonder why I say this – just go and read a typical batch of comments on a YouTube or Google Video clip, or the comments made when a piece about the Middle East appears on Comment is Free or the comments on a political blog like Guido Fawkes. It’s not an edifying display of humanity you get!

But it works and the sheer mass of devoted contributors overcomes many of these problems (aided by the way it gets some design issues rights). Yes – there have been the controversies over particular entries but then there have also been a few brick bats thrown back and forth with other information suppliers, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, over who has the fewer mistakes. Wikipedia certainly seems to hold its own overall in such exchanges.

In these controversies, though, there are two neglected issues about the whole concept on which Wikipedia is founded. Both arise from its essential nature as a collection of articles which are edited and re-edited and then edited again. The idea is that more contributions and more edits slowly add up to a better and better output – and one which can achieve consensus support from the contributors.

There are both philosophical and aesthetic objections to this view. On the philosophic (or epistemological) – can you really get at some sort of impartial truth that will be agreed on by everyone by simply compiling more and more facts and edits? It’s a rather eighteenth century view of how knowledge works and its limitations – and so it is perhaps rather a surprise that this has caused relatively little controversy for Wikipedia so far.

For an entry such as a listing of US Presidents, you can aspire to perfection – and to get there through the accumulation of edits and improvements. But that’s because we can envisage an objective, immutable (at least until the next one gets elected) truth to work towards – the one and only correct listing of US Presidents.

Most of life, though, is far messier. Is there a one and only immutable account of the Six Days War? Or the relative merits of PCs and Apple Macs? Or the cultural significance of the 1960s? Can you imagine consensus being reached on any of these?

For these issues a site based on an accumulation of edits heading towards a consensus is in fact a deeply flawed approach – rather than letting the diversity of different views flourish, it tries to straitjacket them into one homogenised account. Is the best way of comparing Macs and PCs really to draw everything into one harmonised piece, rather than let well argued cases be made on each side of the argument and then let the reader go through both sides and choose the one that is the most convincing?

And even if you think that isn’t the case for this particular example – it is taking a huge leap to then have to argue that it isn’t the case for any of the sorts of information that Wikipedia covers – ever.

Turning to the aesthetic objection to the Wikipedia approach – there is a clue to my views in the use of “homogenised”. It’s that Wikipedia in effect rejects the idea that style and quality of writing matters.

Can you imagine a Michelangelo statue or a Constable painting or a Beethoven symphony emerging from a group of individuals each making their own chip away or dab of paint or writing in their own couple of notes? Of course not – there is a beauty that comes from the act of creation which can’t be divided down into numerous different contributors.

So take a piece of knowledge – such as the influence of the Wild West on the US. To understand it, you need – amongst other things – a sense of the scale of the country, the vast distances over which the country developed and events played out. An accountant-like recitation of the acreage of different states doesn’t achieve that on its own. To understand you need to feel – to appreciate the emotions invoked in people – and that requires quality writing. You don’t get that from the repeated editing and re-editing of text by numerous different hands.

The best recounters of knowledge – whether written or spoken – can help invoke understanding through the emotions they can impart, be it on the horrific scale of the Holocaust or the inspiring scale of the our galaxy – and its tiny size out there compared with the rest of the universe.

Yet every Wikipedia entry I have ready – and yes, many are useful – falls flat. Look to at the trail of edits made to Wikipedia pieces; stylistic improvements barely feature. You get a few spelling corrections and grammatical improvements, and that’s pretty much it.

True, there are the “featured articles”, which do have to meet high writing standards, but they are thin on the ground (just 0.08% of Wikipedia articles are “featured” at the time of writing) – and so do not reflect the reality of Wikipedia as is for most of i
ts readers.

What does this all mean? Well – I certainly have and will continue to use Wikipedia to find information. But we’ll be a less well informed world if we lose sight of its limitations and don’t seek out that information which can be best conveyed, understood and expressed in ways that Wikipedia doesn’t permit.

Above all, there is not just beauty but also information and understanding to be found in carefully crafted words that reach standards of artistry beyond the mere humdrum accumulation of factual edits.

0 thoughts on “Wikipedia and its limitations

  1. Hi Lynne. Interesting thoughts. I have over 2,000 edits on Wikipedia, so I like to think that I have a rough idea about how it all works. I’ve come to see that Wikipedia works a lot better than one might think. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Wikipedia does not comprise millions of people acting without any reference to each other. Rather it is a community of users, where the vast majority of edits are in fact made by a small nucleus of serious editors. Secondly, Wikipedia has the most comprehensive tracking facilities imaginable. You can easily trace all the edits made on a particular article, or all the edits made by a particular user. I come from a software background, so the article history and difference engine was immediately familiar to me – indeed this was the point when I realised that this totally crazy idea could actually work.You ask, “can you really get at some sort of impartial truth that will be agreed on by everyone by simply compiling more and more facts and edits?” The answer is yes. If all the editors act in good faith, and all the information is well sourced, and everyone is prepared to engaged in sensible and vaguely polite discussion on the talk page, then it works really well. Clearly there are going to be articles where people have wildly differing opinions, but here one just has to resort to quoting independent sources. “The Guardian said this, but on the other hand, the New York Times said that.” What, for instance, could be more controversial than Jerusalem? But the article is superb – a featured article in fact.On the aesthetic point, I’m much more in agreement with you. I believe that a good encyclopedia should not only be accurate, but also stylish and entertaining. So I like to bowl the occasional googly or insert a hilarious aside, but these are rarely appreciated by the more bureaucratically minded editors. On a few occasions, I have worked quite hard on an article, only to have it ruined by some complete numpty with zero imagination. This is annoying because the first rule of Wikipedia is that nobody “owns” any article, however much effort you may have put into it. But I do wish that there was some sort of rating system for editors, which might enable one to pull rank over an inexperienced or anonymous editor. Instead, an ethos of strict equality reigns.Obviously Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but I still think that it is way better than the published encyclopedias which are certainly not without error or bias themselves. On Wikipedia, you get the information in as much depth as someone has taken the trouble to provide. This does in turn lead to some imbalance. For instance, articles on pop stars tend to be extremely comprehensive. Now you might think that this is a bit frivolous, but of course the reason the articles are first-rate is because so many fans really care about them. So it’s kind of self-calibrating. Last but not least, Wikipedia is completely free. This makes it of potentially enormous benefit to the developing world. It also means that if you see something you don’t like, then you either have to fix it or stop complaining!I haven’t edited Wikipedia for a while now, as I’m a bit busy at the moment trying to set the world straight, which I can see is going to take a little while. But I use Wikipedia all the time and would recommend it to anyone. Your article isn’t too bad. It tells us a lot of useful stuff, like your middle name is Choona. (Crikey, whose idea was that?) Apparently, you’re also very wealthy. (Couldn’t lend us a fiver, could you?) Finally, we learn that you are, “regarded as one of the most attractive MPs in Westminster.” Well we knew that!Hope to see you at the Cambridge hustings. Exciting innit? Take care!xxx