Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Wired weighs in on wikis

The new issue of Wired has the best examination I've seen yet of the controversial wiki process, in this case as it specifically pertains to the experimental online publication I've written about the subject myself, at my main journal, mostly because I've been thinking of contributing a document to the similar online experiment The Wired article, in fact, addresses several of the issues about wikis that I bring up in my own article, including the danger of spammers and revisionists simply outlasting regular wiki contributors, when it comes to changing the content at certain posts. (The article cites this interesting statistic from the administrators of Wikipedia - that whenever a major act of vandalism is committed, such as deleting an entire entry, it's usually overrided by a Wikipedia regular an average of 2.8 minutes later, which drops to 1.7 minutes when the deletion is replaced with a scatological term.)

The article also profiles a random high-level user of Wikipedia, showing why the things that have kept him from the traditional academic world are the very same things that make him a perfect regular contributor to something like an open-source project. (I've talked about this at my main journal before as well - how the majority of my regular readers tend to be highly intelligent and with a creative flair, even as they choose not to formally pursue a creative career like writing themselves. Such amateur experts are the gold standard for high-end Wikipedia contributors; it gives these people a chance to share their knowledge in a creative way, without it overwhelming the schedule the rest of their life demands of them, such as time set aside for a job or to spend with family.) The article also does a nice job at pointing out the similarities between something like a traditional encyclopedia and the early business models of the Industrial Age - i.e., a very smart and experienced person at the top, deciding policy and correcting the mistakes of a group of slightly less intelligent, slightly less experienced people below them. Now that this model is getting rapidly turned on its head in the traditional business world, this article implies, maybe it's time that re-examine how it applies to the academic world as well.

Ultimately the article confirms the main point of my own column on the subject - that something like a Wiki, no matter what its subject, lives and dies directly based on the number of its serious, informed, sincere contributors. Why something like Wikipedia has been able to combat vandalism so effectively so far is because of the number of sincere members who are trawling the site each day, specifically looking for acts of vandalism. The less of these people you have, the harder it is for such an overwhelming site to have anything even approaching a self-policing policy. For now, I think it's best to look at such publications as Wikipedia the same way this Wired article does - as a glorified experiment, and a chance to put some fairly abstract political theories into actual concrete use, more than something that can be directly compared to a document like the Encyclopedia Brittanica. It's certainly a much more fun way to get your point across than simply writing a manifesto, that's for sure.