Tuesday, July 28, 2009

There, there, SharePoint - you're not the only one whose intent doesn't match its use: look at wikipedia

Ah, Wikipedia. Without you, I would never have known that new Doctor Who Executive producer Steven Moffat also created Press Gang (which surely should make him eligible for a Nobel Prize of some sort). Or that the Large Hadron Collider could very well produce a black hole, but one that is unlikely to be a problem beyond the natural life-span of the planet anyway. Or how many Roma people may or may not have died as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Of course, I still might not know these things, but just think I know them.

I was recently in a "discussion" (I made an assertion, I got a reply, and since the replier was someone who has to have the last word, I decided to make his first and his last the same - and he still needed to have the last word against himself!) about some of the pitfalls regarding Wikipedia. Most notably, the rules. The oh so, so, SO many rules. Why is that important? Because it’s a huge turn-off. Anyone who works in the community space probably knows that a great way to skew badly an online community is to bury them in a mountain of rules to follow. Of course, you don't have to enforce them consistently, and you can ignore them, except for when you can't. So, provide all that up front, and then remind everyone that anyone can participate, so that anyone who does is everyone. Now, can anyone point to an occasion where that approach has been a success.

So why does Wikipedia need all these rules? Well, because it’s an encyclopaedia. Except it isn't. Well, I say it isn't, but it is. Well I say it is, but it isn't. Well,...

I don't do a lot of editing on Wikipedia. I see many "facts", a lot of "original research", a lot of "non-NPOV", and I let it all go (just about). Why? Why not? There's a small, mean part of me (I call him Bernard) that says that anyone foolish enough to believe what Wikipedia says at any one time deserves what they get. Its a snobby, elitist, "I'm a librarian and you're an idiot" part of me that I can't get rid of, and probably don't want to. Why? Because, as long as I hold that attitude, I (hopefully) won't accept what's written as fact without thinking about it.

The thing is, I love Wikipedia. I use it EVERY day, for any number of reasons and purposes. Much of it work related (I'd say half the time, because it'd be close, but that scares me). But my favourite thing is TV episode capsules. Family Guy, Dollhouse, Australia’s Next Top Model (Leigh Sales says its OK to watch, thank goodness), you name it. I have this addiction to consult Wikipedia about an episode as I watch it, like an asynchronous commentary track. It really is an addiction, too. I keep telling myself "just wait til the episode is over", never do, because then the next show starts, and I have to look it up before I forget.

How can I use something religiously that I hold in such contempt? Well, possibly I rationalise it by saying that I only believe Wikipedia fully when it ins't something important. I remember one time I did try to do something significant. I couldn't tell you why this one wrong entry set me off, other than the fact that I was in between jobs and wanted to do something useful. I ended up in revert war with a lawyer who was convinced that I was wrong. I had to agree he had the legal expertise to say that, except, I wasn't, because the government authority responsible for the process I was editing - think about the most important democratic process in Australia - said I was right. I quoted directly from their publication, and it was reverted. I quoted directly from their publication and added a passage about the implication, and it was reverted. Some kind soul eventually took pity on me and made an edit to say what I had been trying to say, but make it sound like the opposite was true in a special case - which as far as I know has occurred once ever, and only because the law was changed to make it happen. I would now say that the page is technically correct, but presented in such a way as to give readers the wrong impression if they aren't well versed in the Australian version of that process. Oh well, the stupid people can believe what they like.

Now, this post rambles a lot, which is important. Because that's what Wikipedia is like: a long, rambling, partially coherent conversation. It’s not authoritative, because it’s ephemeral, with a few exceptions. It’s useful, but only as an addition to well-informed research. It’s a noble idea, but its goals are incompatible with its nature. It’s not evil, but only because it’s not good either. I'm not saying don't support it, or don't use it. Just use it with caution. Know what wikipedia is, and what it isn't, and use it accordingly.

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