Tuesday, November 27, 2007

%1wikiproblems

Wikipedia is a brilliant invention. It's redefined the way we get information, just as - arguably, to a lesser degree - Google did before it, and the burgeoning social map is promising to do shortly on Wikipedia's heels. From Wikipedia, one can get quick, in-depth information on topics ranging from curling champions to Castilian conquerors, and with a little caution, need have little worry over reliability. Some problems Wikipedia has are minor, and may be easily dismissed - things like stubs, or articles that read like advertisements... things that may easily be tagged and swiftly dealt with.

But there are bigger problems.

Wikipedia, contrary to common belief, is largely maintained by a core of editors a fraction of the size of the total user populace. Most users contribute a word here or there, but do little to define Wikipedia's shape. These unofficially appointed leaders do most of the work, creating articles, fixing stubs, deleting vandalism - and, sadly, therein lies a problem.

The lead editors (as I will call them henceforth) have developed a sort of community, even on something so distributed and impersonal as Wikipedia. They have internal rank (based on number of edits), dedication... and egos, and rather strong opinions. In many respects, they do more harm than good. But their cliquism is a canker at Wikipedia's heart.

It's complex and interrelating, and I'm having trouble breaking it down. In short:
- Unofficial:
= Discrimination against new or inexperienced users
= Abuse of power (deleting or changing votes)
- Official policies:
= Non-notability (deletion of articles that "aren't deserving of space on Wikipedia" - the biggest problem)
= Bias against users who have a stake in articles' subjects

Basically: Wikipedia, as I heard it stated elsewhere, faces an identity crisis. On the one hand, it's the "collection of all human knowledge", as creator Jimbo Wales put it - saying everything (non-biased) about everything. On the other hand, official policy is to delete non-notable articles - notability being determined essentially arbitrarily by editors.

The process of action on non-notability:
- an article is listed as non-notable
- an Article For Deletion (AfD page goes up)
- votes are posted
- a moderator deletes the page or keeps it, on their judgement - not based on the votes.

This process can sweep through extremely swiftly. And what criteria for notability there are remain dreadfully absurd. Webcomics, for example (this is a perennial problem, and one that first brought my attention to Wikiproblems), have notability determined by Alexa ratings. For those unfamiliar with them (I was!), Alexa is a sort of spyware Internet Explorer users - and only IE users - can choose to install. Alexa - a private corporation which does not reveal its processes - then chugs through this data to spit out results for webpages. So webcomics known by dozens of other web-comicers and inspiring print comics, webcomicers with a regular audience of thousands - if enough of their audience aren't IE users (as is rare for geeky comics, whose readers prefer Linux and/or Firefox), they're out of luck.

I'm conveying it poorly, but it's absurd.

Other problems: corporate and political whitewashing of profiles. Character assassination. Etc, etc.

But, at least, some good comes of it all. Okay, that's actually something slightly different, but it amuses.

Handy reference: Wikitruth.com

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