Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Wisdom of the Crowd

(excerpt from an article for my Fnews class)

Not three years ago, the term ‘Wikipedia’ was a classroom taboo.

Often associated with notions of unreliability or misinformation, this web-based, collaborative encyclopedia project was every research paper’s worst enemy.  But while some aspects of Wikipedia-based data remain questionable, it has become a notable and information tool. According to its own statistics, Wikipedia hosts over 3 million articles in English and an additional 6 million in over 250 additional languages. Since January it has attracted nearly 68 million visitors monthly. In addition to the huge amount of people reading Wikipedia, there is also an enormous group collectively contributing to it – more than 91,000 active contributors adding, subtracting, and editing content.

Noam Cohen is an Internet and Society columnist for the New York Times. Since 2006, he has chronicled the rise of Wikipedia as an encyclopedic source. “The staggering growth of Wikipedia has been read on many levels: for some, it represents the rise of the amateur at the expense of the professional… for others, it is about the power of the Internet to join people in voluntary enterprises for the common good… and on a third hand Wikipedia is credited with being the most powerful engine in promoting free culture.”

With so many people, from so many backgrounds and knowledge bases tapping into this burgeoning online resource, the key question surfaces: How can it be reliable? To understand its reliability, one must examine the process of contributing and editing content.

Editing and creating new pages is terribly simple. After creating a username and password, the user is free to scour Wikipedia’s endless landscape, making changes as they please. Additionally, users can also view a page’s history – a comprehensive list of every change that has been made for that particular entry. In its About section, Wikipedia states quite frankly that while older articles are more “comprehensive and balanced,” newer articles are more likely to carry misinformation.

So if a contributor can log in and post, say, “the steps for weaving a lanyard” under the definition of “String Theory,” it’s no wonder a Wikipedia source is the demise of any serious dissertation. While it may have no place in a formal works cited. Wikipedia can still be a good source of basic information when used properly. For one, many contributors provide references and citations. When the credibility of Wikipedia’s information becomes absolutely necessary, a user can easily follow in-text links to external sources from where the info originated. Additionally, Wikipedia will also provide notices on articles that are either lacking in source material or contain biased, non-objective information. When information is added to a page without a source, a friendly “citation need” link will appear, so other contributor can either add a data source or edit the information further.

As a test, I created a login and entered “hip hip hooray” randomly into the text of Wikipedia’s philosophy page. Not two hours later I checked the page and my little “insertion” had been removed. I received one message from Wikipedia about including sources with my entries and another message from a fellow contributor, “Hi! I hope you don't mind, but I reverted the changes you made to the article on philosophy. D15724C710N (talk • contribs) 17:44, 31 March 2010 (UTC.)” 

So while someone may have been briefly stumped on: “Metaphysics is the study of the nature hip hip hooray of being and the world.” The error was corrected in a matter of hours. Not too shabby. The conclusion – when looking for basic overview information on a term, topic or person, Wikipedia is a good place to start. It also, provides links to all related in-text topics – the philosophy page discussed people and terms such as post-structuralism or Soren Kirkegaard, these items lead to their own pages so the user can delve further into aspects of each topic and how they coexist together. Wikipedia almost exists as a collective world-schema – rather than simply isolating and defining a concept, it also contextualizes it with all other related material.

This consensual way of organizing data also makes an interesting argument for the democracy of information. Piotr Konieczny, author of Governance, Organization, and Democracy on the Internet: The Iron Law and the Evolution of Wikipedia, is also one of Wikipedia’s leading contributors. In his essay he says, “Wikipedia’s policy pages are no different from its encyclopedic articles: they can be edited and changed by any editor, reflecting either ‘‘a consensus’’ among them, ‘‘a slow evolution of convention and common practice eventually codified as a policy.’”

Wikipedia is one of the few systems that counteract the information flow in our current society. Where data typically travels from point A (an “authoritative” media-based source such as the news, a magazine article, a review or any other “informational” material) to point B (the consumer, us, or the “user”) Wikipedia completely alters this formula. It becomes point B to point B or AB to AB. The movement of information is no longer linear – it is a constant back and forth in a way that is much more democratic, anarchic even. The source of information is no longer the individual, rather it is the collective – two heads are potentially better than one. 91,000 heads? Even better. “It is no accident that the wikis allow people to communicate more effectively, democratize decision making, and reduce impact of oligarchies. They were designed from the bottom up with the very purpose of improving collaboration between masses, and hence their structure—their ‘‘code’’—affects the behavior of agents—the individual ‘‘wikipedians’’— influencing the creation of rules and norms,” Says Konieczny in his article.

So in addition to being constantly scrutinized, Wikipedia’s facts come from potentially the largest knowledge base in the world – the populace itself. In a survey of 40 students (age 18 – 25), the highest percentage, 20%, use Wikipedia everyday. 23 of the 40 use it 3 or more times a week – that’s 58%. While it may not be showing up in bibliographies, many students use Wikipedia as a good starting point in their research. Many even use it for entertainment. While taking the survey one student asked, “Have you ever played the Wikipedia game?”
I told him no.
“Yeah it’s where you choose two unrelated topics, say scuba diving and cupcakes. The person who can get from one to the other the fastest, using Wikipedia in-text links and related topics wins.”

Talk about educational fun. Regardless of why you may use it Wikipedia isn’t going anywhere and although it can be argued that there is no true objectivity, the ‘consensus’ style in which it manages information may be our closest solution yet.
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