Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wikipedia, voices and objectivity

In some sort of ideal world, we get our information purely from objective sources, apply cool judgment and act accordingly. In this world the ideal news article or reference text doesn't appear to have been written by anyone. It merely transmits facts, and only facts, to the reader directly and transparently.

This is a caricature, of course, but it's fairly close to what my high school journalism teacher taught, and it's woven deeply into Wikipedia's fabric under the label of Neutral Point of View (NPOV). On the other hand, Wikipedia is almost by definition a work in progress, constantly updated by a near-anarchy of mostly psudonymous if not anonymous editors. No one can stop you from saying that hard-boiled eggs must only be cracked on the big end, and no one can stop me from correcting your heinous misconception. I mean, from expressing my personal opinion on the matter.

But it all works remarkably well, for several reasons:
  • Wikipedia is inclusive by nature. An encyclopedia aims to be all-inclusive to begin with. An online encyclopedia, without the limitations of physical ink and paper, doesn't have to worry about running out of space. More important, though, is the huge number of contributors. All the paper in the world is useless without someone to write on it. And revise. And re-revise. And so on. This is not to say that Wikipedia includes everything willy-nilly. There are definite policies for what can and cannot be included, but they're aimed towards notability and not someone's idea of correctness.
  • The guidelines like NPOV really do matter because they're supported by a strong culture. The community has long since reached a critical mass of active members that take Wikipedia policy seriously and act to reinforce it and to repair breaches, even if that means tediously reverting an endless stream of "MY MATH TEECHUR SUX DOOD" and worse vandalism.
  • It's generally easy to tell when someone is injecting opinion. It's even easier to tell when two (or more) people are trying to inject conflicting opinions. The occasional of jumble of "Some authorities [who?] insist that ... however so-and-so[17] has stated that ... " doesn't necessarily make for smooth or pleasant reading, but it does tend to make clear who's grinding which ax.
  • Similarly, it's easy to spot a backwater article that hasn't seen a lot of editing. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Obscure math articles, for example, tend to read like someone's first draft of a textbook, full of "Let x ..." and "it then clearly follows that ..." The prose may be a bit chewy, but whoever wrote it almost certainly cared enough to get the details right. Articles on obscure bands generally read like liner notes and tend to slightly hype that band's achievements and their home-town music scene. That's fine. Take it with a grain of salt and enjoy the tidbits you wouldn't have heard otherwise.
  • Likewise, it's easy to tell when an article has had a good going-over. Articles on "controversial" topics may or may not have had their "on the other hand ... on the other other hand ..." back-and-forth smoothed out, but they do tend to accumulate copious footnotes. Just as one could argue that forums exist to generate FAQ lists, one could argue that such articles exist to gather references to primary sources.
Whenever I find myself too far out on my "web changes nothing" limb, it helps to consider Wikipedia and realize that there's really nothing quite like it. But it's also important, I think, to realize that Wikipedia works so well not because it works perfectly -- it clearly doesn't -- but because it's robust in the face of its imperfections. This is a property of good distributed systems in general, the distributed system in this case comprising not just the author/editors, but the reader taking Wikipedia's nature into account.

P.S.: While fetching up the link for NPOV above, I first tried "npov", figuring it would redirect to the right place, WP:NPOV, since I can never remember the right prefix for the special pages. Oddly enough, if you don't capitalize it the right way, npov redirects to Journalism. Not sure I buy that, but it's an interesting angle.

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