UberWikipedia

There’s regularly wringing of hands over something wrong — or worse, poisoned — at Wikipedia. Where some see a problem, I see an opportunity:

If I were a reference publisher, a library association, a university, a media company, or a foundation, I’d take Wikipedia as raw material and vet entries, perhaps even charging for the service: On demand or on the basis of traffic and links, I’d go in and vet already-written pieces and bless that version of it. Then maybe I’d publish a book from it. Subsequent changes would be unvetted until and unless I chose to or the audience asked me to review them. If a piece just simply isn’t up to snuff, I’d put it on a gray list, which I’d also make available not only as a warning (that’s seeing the problem again) but as a challenge to Wikipedians to improve the piece and make the grade (that’s the opportunity). And if the public sees a piece that is haunted by inaccuracy or, worse, is manipulated for someone’s agenda, then they can post a public warning as well. And, of course, I don’t have to do all this just with staff. I can also vet Wikipedians or others so that when they review a piece and bless it, so we can consider it blessed. And if there’s any money in this, I share it with them. In short, I’d create a superstructure of known, proven editors and researchers not to replace a single thing about Wikipedia today but to add value on top of it.

I agree with Dave Winer that “we need to determine what authority means in the age of Internet scholarship.” And I agree with Rex that Wikipedia itself must remain as open as it is today and that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater when one error or one Wikipedian in need of meds is found. The vast — and dynamic — resource that Wikipedia has become is invaluable and the vast majority of what is in there is quite useful. What we need is mostly a pressure-relief valve for these complaints and reputed scandals that inevitably emerge.

Now that I think of it, this might have been a nice business model for the shrinking Britannica. It might still be.

: UPDATE: Fred Wilson calls this the Redhat version of Wikipedia.

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    Hidden agendas, self-serving fact twisting, ignorant pontification, and outright lying has been a part of the official narrative since the first historians. It isn’t a matter of professionals or amateurs… some of the most truthful history was cobbled together by rank and file observers. Some of the worst bunk was penned by official scribes.

    It’s a huge problem. And it starts with the fact that intelligent people, people who know better, keep quiet when the distortions work for them and their narrow interests.

    We all need to up our willingness to promote the truth and call out those who screw with the truth, whoever and whatever party they serve.

    IMHO.

  • http://www.marketanomaly.com Adam Saunders

    The Wikipedia team should probably talk to Craig Newmark about handling Wiki Miscreants. He seems to be the expert on managing these problem children in an open community format. Maybe Wikipedia needs a “sweep the leg” button.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Good points, all.

  • Jon Victor

    Isn’t Uberwikipedia also a more economic (profitable) model for distributing news? In a comment to Ethan last week, I suggested that each constituency in the news generation process might consider doing what it does best. Citizen/grassroots journalism is thriving and “the public” might be a lower cost source of raw news than a newspaper maintaining a proprietary newsroom. Editors would continue to play the vital role of moderating what is worthy of publication. But, what is missing is a 2-way pipe connecting citizen journalists and editors. And, that pipe might also include a means of allocating economic value – an eBay of citizen-generated content? I have been thinking of building this pipe and would be very interested in your thoughts.

  • Jorge

    I know enough about Wikipedia now to be able to say it can NEVER be trusted for any kind of reference. I could care less who owns or runs it , all I care about is truth and accuracy.

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    “Wikipedia.. can NEVER be trusted for any kind of reference” ??

    That’s not accurate and that’s not truth. I just looked up Max Plank and found some references I am pretty sure are trustworthy. One example is all it takes to prove a “never” and “any” statement inaccurate.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Jon Victor: I like that notion and look forward to fermenting it.

    Jorge: But, you see, you say that but you yourself give no evidence to back up what you’re saying and don’t give your own name. Could be a double negative, eh?

    Wikipedia is not one monolithic thing. It is the collection of the work of many people. Some are better than others, more accurate than others, fairer than others; some need meds, as is always the case online… and in life. Wikipedia has its Jayson Blairs but then, so did the New York Times.

  • Gray

    Jeff, more realism, pls. You want to keep Wiki as it is, just add a layer of editors to prevent abuse and bad entries? Do you have any idea how many edits happen at Wiki at any given day? Don’t forget, the insertion of a single word or even a simple comma can change the meaning of a sentence. For Wiki to reach the level of reliability of the Britannica, every edit would have to be approved. You’re right in evaluating that this lot of editors would have to be paid for and that a business model would be need, but I’m afraid you didn’t caluculate how high the budget would have to be.

    Btw, Wiki tries to raise revenue (for the servers) not only by fundraising but by selling CDs (books are so 19th century) and other stuff. There are editors (Admins) and users that care for a special article. There are several kind of ‘gray’ (Freud? ggg) lists in the form of ‘Stubs’ (new entries that still need some work), disputed NPOVs (neutral point of view), articles under discussion (readonly) and articles on the deletion list and maybe some more that I don’t know.

    There are problems, but a solution isn’t as easy as you seem to think. Did you ever participate in working at an article? I did, though I only scratched the surface of Wiki. To propose changes that would really improve Wikipedia you need to know a lot more about the philosophy and procedures.

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  • http://sisu.typepad.com Sissy Willis

    Did you know that Henry Thoreau never married? Neither did I till I read it on Wikipedia.

  • Gray

    Erh, Beth, you may be right, you may even be at the right blog for that topic, but you sure that this is the right thread?
    Besides, your three sentences just happen to be the opening of your latest story at your blog. Are you real or just a bot ‘spreading the word’? This is your idea of creative advertising for bloggers? Smells like Spam…

  • http://tomgrey.motime.com Tom Grey – Liberty Dad

    Jeff, I believe Wiki a lot already — but you’re absolutely correct that “editors” are needed. And editors of the editors/ arbiters of what “truth” is.

    What are facts — and what are meanings? I think PJ Media needs more editors, too. But good editing will prolly cost some money — though using cheap PhD candidates (like so many academic Profs do) is a wise move, too.

  • the janice

    My uneducated wikipinion:

    A live “rate the authors” system. A contributor rating system.
    People can vote for you. Hit a certian level and you’re a god, or –hit a certian level and your a toad.

    Or a community content rating: Was this helpful? Did this answer your question? ;)

    caveat: I have no idea how author management works or if there is any. If there isn’t – there is no way to manage authors, which is maybe why you guys are talking content rating?!

    WIKIPINION! heh.
    -j

  • Gray

    janice, this rating idea looks good at first sight, but imho there are lots of hidden traps.

    My example: I was working for some weeks on an biographical article in Wiki. I didn’t do much else except some editing of wording or misspelling. The subject of the article is a guy that had his time of fame some years ago, but isn’t really in the public focus anymore. Turned out that there were only two people really working on that article, me and another guy who had a totally different point of view. We were fighting for every single detail, I wanted to add more background on the professional history of the subject, he objected. He wanted to insert more quotes from a website specialized on the topic, I was against it because it was a one sided source. What started as an enthusiastic adventure in creating wiki content soon became hard, frustrating work. Eventually I pulled out because I needed a break.

    What I want to say is: What do you think what rating I would have got for my work? This other guy seemed to be involved in some other topics, too, so he may have got some positive reviews from others, but I was participating only at this article and who else really could have evaluated my efforts? Imho it would be very difficult to create a rating system that would be objective and not be unfair against new members.

    Actually, it is very surprising how many informative articles are in wikipedia. And there would be even less bad articles in it if more people would understand how it works and tried to participate. Just take that story about the journalist who was smeared as involved in the JFK assasination.

    As far as I remember, the manipulation was first noticed in spring, then the top brass of Wiki was notified, they responded that users would change that soon, and yet it took several months until something happened. Sure, this doesn’t look good for surfers unfamilar with Wiki. But why, oh why, hasn’t the journalist himself or some of the several people who told him about the smearpiece immediately deleted or edited the article? You know, that’s what Wiki is about, you see an error, you correct it. If the whole article is a piece of s***, you can delete every single line. You don’t have to log in, you don’t need any special software, you click ‘edit’ and do it!

    What happened to the american spirit of ‘can do’ if people can’t even afford one minute anymore to do the right thing! Instead this bad joke of an article lingered in Wiki for several months and people started complaining about the Wiki creators. Great idea, really, if an american today sees a piece of paper with his picture and an unfriendly remark at a lamppost on the street, I guess he won’t just tear it down any more, he will go complaining to the mayor. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t want to blame the victim here, but this is an outstanding example that many internet users don’t understand Wiki, not even the most basic procedures.

    So imho the democratic system of Wiki could work, but there are more honest users needed to counter the bunch of vandalists. I think this is the only way for Wiki to work, not adding a complex bureaucratic system in top of it. Pls check it out for yourself before you offer any ‘simple’ solutions!

  • the janice

    Gray,

    As you describe, wikipedia by nature is a free-for-all that generally exemplifies the goodness of people. I’d have given you an a+!

    By nature of the wikipedia non-structure, ocassionally someone will come in and spraypaint their intitals — or in your case, one will tangle with a co-author until one person gives way.

    On the flip side, as you say, people are not generally aware they can fix thing if they see something wrong! If more people knew they could change wiki stuff, you’d probably even find more graffiti! So, I’m not 100% sure I agree that as more people understand the non-structure, the more good articles there will be. I think that “graffiti” would also increase. Certianly there will be a proportional increase in “good” articles.

    Perhaps it is inherent in the wikipedia-non-structure that the content will only be able to come up to a certian level of coolness before a critical mass occurs between the goodness people and the grafitti people .

    It’s fascinating actually.

    I am totally not smart enough to help unfortunately. Maybe what you need is a game theory guy to figure it out!

    ( ex:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash_equilibrium )

    Best,
    -janice

  • http://jalna.blogs.com Craig

    Interesting commentry, http://www.h2g2.com use a model similar to what you describe, whereby anybody can create articles, but they are only published on the site as “complete” when they have been through a peer review process.

  • http://www.filmbuffonline.com Rich Drees

    This brings to mind a recent Wikipedia flap that reared its head within the comicbook collecting community. It seems that writer/artist John Byrne – a very talented guy whose work I have enjoyed – is a rather contankerous fellow who enjoys rewriting his own past and when he discovered that there was a Wikipedia article on him, he went apesh*t over some of the things reported- things like his combative relationships with some of his collaberators, reasons why cetrain projects were cancelled or why he was removed from certain books and the fact that he used to live in Canada. (Yes, you read that right) This comes as no surprise to most in the collecting community as his personal website’s discussion board is super-heavily moderated, with any one posting an opinion contrary to Byrne’s or even mentioning the name of some he happens to be mad with (such as writer Peter David) will earn the poster a swift rebuke, the removal of the post and quite possibly the honor of being banned from the site. Well, it seems he went in and edited the article on himself, and then tried to get into arguements with the wiki admins over the whole thing. For those of us who are always amused by his antics, it was great comedy indeed. I believe the article is now locked to prevent his further tampering…

  • http://wikip.blogspot.com Ben Yates

    You want to keep Wiki as it is, just add a layer of editors to prevent abuse and bad entries?

    No, no, no, absolutely not. Jeff’s idea isn’t to improve wikipedia (that is, onsite wikipedia, the original wikipedia) — it’s to have outside organizations cherrypick only a few articles, vet them, and publish them elsewhere (perhaps the original article could gain a notice pointing to the version that was blessed, but this isn’t a part of the idea).

    To put it another way, the idea isn’t for the outside world to improve wikipedia; it’s for wikipedia to improve the outside world (by providing a free base to build off of).

  • Hale Adams

    Maybe a partial solution would be to divide each Wikipedia entry into two parts.

    Call the first part, say, “the official entry”, posted by the editors/admin-personnel at Wikipedia, and subject to modification upon the discovery of errors.

    Call the second part, say, “contributions by readers”, with each contributor allowed a space (and only one space, to avoid duplicate entries) to make contributions.

    This way, folks can contribute what they like, and have their contributions seen by the public, but their contributions will be seen as unofficial until Wikipedia’s admininstrators/editors have a chance to vet the contributions and compose or modify an official entry.

    My two cents’ worth…..

  • the janice
  • http://www.phillyfuture.org Karl

    You would figure that this would be a natural evolution for Answers.com. If they don’t do it – well someone should. A great idea.

  • Bert

    laurence haughton Says:

    December 4th, 2005 at 5:59 pm
    “Wikipedia.. can NEVER be trusted for any kind of reference” ??

    That’s not accurate and that’s not truth. I just looked up Max Plank and found some references I am pretty sure are trustworthy. One example is all it takes to prove a “never” and “any” statement inaccurate.

    Lauren, I agree with the statement that Wikipedia con not be trusted, and here’s why:
    1) The article you looked up was a topic that you cared to know about and verify its correct nature.

    2)Assuming that you nothing about this topic, what if you went, say, the Ohio Weslyan University (Delaware, Ohio) article. Is it correct? Or is it what an alumnus wants people to think of the college he attended? What about the primary source material added to the article but was erased bacuse the article protector stated “This isn’t included on the OWU web site, so its something that OWU doesn’t feel is important.” What then?

    3) Wikiepdia is like a shell game. Under one of the shells is an article that contains true information. The only way that you can know which article is true (for the moment) is unveil the ball However the perception is that the true information could be under any of the shells, but the majority of people won’t get that ball on the first shot because the odds are aginst them.

    4) If one article incorrect at a point in time, could there be fifty more? 1,000? 12,000? Does even Wikipedia have any idea how many articles are correct or incorrect at a given time?

    5) What if the article did contain correct information, but it had been replaced by a variety of editors with information that appears plausible. If you know nothing about it, how would you know to scan all the edits?

    What makes Wikipedia unreliable is that there are too many points at which sorrect material can be adjusted, edited, purged, spun, etc. In theory, its a great idea, in practice there is simply no way to guarentee its accuracy unless you’re willing to play Wikipedia-roulette. Wikipedia is simply the ubber-dysfunctional Vanity page on the WWW.

  • Bert

    “Wikipedia.. can NEVER be trusted for any kind of reference” ??

    That’s not accurate and that’s not truth. I just looked up Max Plank and found some references I am pretty sure are trustworthy. One example is all it takes to prove a “never” and “any” statement inaccurate.

    Lauren, I agree with the statement that Wikipedia con not be trusted, and here’s why:

    1) The article you looked up was a topic that you cared to know about and verify its correct nature.

    2)Assuming that you nothing about this topic, what if you went, say, the Ohio Wesleyan University (Delaware, Ohio) article. Is it correct? Or is it what an alumnus wants people to think of the college he attended? What about the primary source material added to the article but was erased bacuse the article protector stated “This isn’t included on the OWU web site, so its something that OWU doesn’t feel is important.” What then? What happens when a wikipedian is attacked by sockpuppets for trying to stand up for what is truth over what is propaganda

    3) Wikiepdia is like a shell game. Under one of the shells is an article that contains true information. The only way that you can know which article is true (for the moment) is unveil the ball However the perception is that the true information could be under any of the shells, but the majority of people won’t get that ball on the first shot because the odds are aginst them.

    4) If one article incorrect at a point in time, could there be fifty more? 1,000? 12,000? Does even Wikipedia have any idea how many articles are correct or incorrect at a given time?

    5) What if the article did contain correct information, but it had been replaced by a variety of editors with information that appears plausible. If you know nothing about it, how would you know to scan all the edits?

    6) Wikipedia has rules – lots and lots of them. But while it says there is a code of conduct, its actually rather anarchist environment, with Admins get involved when they feel its needed.

    What makes Wikipedia unreliable is that it can not be controlled. There are too many points at which correct material can be adjusted, edited, purged, spun, etc. In theory, its a great idea, in practice there is simply no way to guarentee its accuracy unless you’re willing to play Wikipedia-roulette. Wikipedia is simply the ubber-dysfunctional Vanity page on the WWW.

  • http://www.laurencehaughton.com laurence haughton

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. He said “never” be trusted for “any” kind of reference. I’m not suggesting that it can “always” be trusted for “every” kind of reference.

    I simply meant to convey that a man who asks for accuracy and truth shouldn’t make inaccurate and “less than the whole truth” statements using words like never and any.

    You say Wikipedia cannot be trusted. Your argument suggests it cannot be trusted “implicitly.” No argument. But I see value in the product.

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  • Helen Masters

    The whole Wikipedia concept is fatally flawed. The notion that one can produce an authoritative encyclopedia without any kind of editorial control is patently ridiculous.

    There is a far greater and more insidious threat to Wikipedia than simple character assassination or falsehood. It can broadly be labelled “infomercial content” (i.e. content that purports to be informative but has a commercial bias). A good example is the entry on Barcelona (Spain). The whole article reads like a tourist brochure and any reference to the city’s pollution problems is swiftly removed by an army of self-appointed censors. There are strong indications that the Barcelona Tourist Board (or its army of acolytes) has effectively hijacked the site. This kind of thing is going to become more prevalent as Wikipedia becomes better known. Basically, there is nothing that can be done to stop this corporate take-over of Wikipedia without editorial control yet such control runs counter to the whole Wiki ethos.

    The idea that “a community of users” is going to apply some common sense criteria regarding content is a mistaken one. In the case of the Barcelona entry, the influence of Catalan/Spanish speakers on both content and style is all too evident. The locals seem eager to “sell” their city to the wider world and to show off their appalling English. Wikipedia not only lacks the control mechanisms to stop them, it also wilfully fails to recognize it has a serious problem.

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