Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wikipedia Experiments

I've written about Wikipedia in the past, most recently here. But I've stayed away from the most recent flaps for a variety of reasons: they were getting so much ink and so many electrons elsewhere, general fatigue with the topic, and a general sense that (as in so many things related to Open Source) positions were often so calcified that scoring points trumped legitimate discussion. Perhaps, as Nicholas Carr suggested in a recent post:
Wikipedia ran into trouble because it assumed - or allowed itself, not unwillingly, to have thrust upon it - a mantle of "authority" that it neither needed nor deserved. It became a cause celebre of techno-romantics who saw it as a harbinger of an internet-enabled era of egalitarian media and universal creativity...

Wikipedia is not an authoritative encyclopedia, and it should stop trying to be one. It's a free-for-all, a rumble-tumble forum where interested people can get together in never-ending, circular conversations and debates about what things mean. Maybe those discussions will resolve themselves into something like the truth. Maybe they won't. Who cares? As soon as you strip away the need to be like an encyclopedia and to be judged like an encyclopedia - as soon as you stop posing as an encyclopedia - you get your freedom back. You lose the need for complicated rules and restrictions and all sorts of tortured hand-wringing and navel-gazing. You don't have to worry about critics because critics don't have anything to criticize. Some facts are wrong? Hey, we never claimed they wouldn't be. Someone created an entry about an imaginary being from Planet Xenat? So what were you expecting - an encyclopedia?

Be that as it may, I've been conducting an experiment of sorts over the past few months. I've been keeping watch on a few Wikipedia articles on which I've done some work and/or interest. Obviously this is anecdotal (and on a small scale at that), but it probably sheds some light all the same. The articles in question are AViiON, Data General, Cambridge (MA), and InfiniBand. Read through the recent histories to get the full thread, but I'm going to pick out a few things I've found indicative and give my overall take.

AViiON: As I detailed previously, there were considerable problems with this article. I did a fair bit of reworking as a result. The result is not as complete as it could be, but IMO it's accurate as far as it goes. Recent changes by others? Minor, but positive. Moving a secondary and unresolved topic (where the AViiON name came from) to the notes. Fixing some minor errors and inconsistencies. I had to make my own meal, but no ones ruined what I prepared and has even added a few spices here and there.

Data General: Not so good. Breathless campaigns against supposedly non-neutral points of view here and only slightly less so here over what seem to me pretty factual statements. But, hey, we have to observe Neutral Point of View (NPOV) even though the concept is pretty silly taken to the extreme. Any conclusion is a point of view. It's only a question of how strong the supporting evidence is and how many people agree with you. No fixup or improvement of most of the problems I pointed out in my earlier post.

Cambridge (MA): Twiddles. No real harm though mostly pretty irrelevant. Additions to people who had once set foot in Cambridge, PC-ish fiddling with how to describe recent immigrants, one quickly-reverted piece of minor vandalism. The article could certainly stand some more history, but it's not seriously deficient for what it is and the changes haven't really been negative.

InfiniBand: I'm uncertain about this sentence that's been added at the end. (As far as I know, Horus is a 32-way chipset for AMD Opteron and can find no online support for what's described here.) That, of course, is one issue with the Wikipedia editing process. Although there are potential forums for discussions (e.g. Talk pages), it's not like a normal collaborative editing process really. As a result, you may respect the original material more than I would in my normal role as editor.

Overall take (for these statistically insignificant examples)?: For the most part-—piddle, twiddle, and resolve. Not one damned thing do we solve. Copyediting's great, but systematic editing, researching, and good writing are better.The "info rot" in these articles was minor. But neither were there step function improvements. Not an F. But a gentleman's C on these topics.
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