Making Wikipedia Workable

Business As Usual

To Tell the Truth, Wikipedia Really Needs to Work on Itself

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ikipedia, one of the Internet's foremost resources for reliable information, has got a lot of work to do. I have recently undertaken some "Wiki Work" of my own, intending on contributing some relevant validation of fact(s) in areas of both professional expertise and personal interest, and adding some original content that was missing entirely. Out of necessity, mind you; the motivation wasn't towards a cult of personality.

Working with an industry colleague from IBM India Systems & Technology Labs on an article we found glaringly absent in clarifying a rather ambiguous topic (specifically, a comparative matrix of variant OpenStack distributions), we undertook Wikipedia as a logical place for us to complement an existing Wiki page on the subject matter at hand. Being the open sourced, community-commons spirited type persons we are, it made the most sense to publish the information here for the benefit of a broader audience. Further, I saw a combined opportunity to extend the effort into some areas of personal interest; an ideal arena to advance my longstanding internet dedication towards encyclopedia-izing the rich musical heritage and culture of my home state of North Carolina (TarTunes), and a native tongue of Cherokee.  There's a point to these personalized examples: the need for, and interest in, working on Wikipedia has led to some fascinating realizations and today's Monday Musing: Making Wikipedia Workable

Wikipedia eschews opinion by an expert, personal interests can be taken too far and the Truth may not be what you think it is.

 The Cult of Wikipedia

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s one of the Internet's crowning achievements, Wikipedia exists as the 6th most widely used website in the world; the English (EN) version harbors an ever-growing list of 4 million+ articles, making it nearly the default source for neutral, accurate information of online news services, search engines (Google), virtual personal assistants in handheld devices (Siri) and all of us as individual end-users of the Internet for the validated truths we constantly seek. Yet, it is also much more than just one of the real wonders of our modern, technological world; it has caused us not only to rethink the singularity of thought and authorship, but it allows all of us to be actual scientists in both the building and dissemination of knowledge itself. The community of mankind collectively collaborates on Truth here, a radical diverge from our civilization's history of having it handed down to us from heights of academic elitism.  Learning has become doing; we participate in it, as opposed to merely receiving and accepting it, as-is. This is really, really powerful stuff. But it has also become the stuff of half-truths, failing vision, vendettas and status-anxiety.

Walk Like a Wikipedian

Prepare yourself for a tiring bout of drudgery here with some jargon that certainly wears out its welcome; I have to talk here in "wiki-speak" as it has a language, religion and politic all its own (and if you don't believe me, you can look all of these wiki-concocted terms up on Wikipedia itself, or in one of its sister projects, Wiktionary).  Then again, I don't know why I find this lacking luster or even "different"; most, if not all, of our prevalent collaborative platforms that come to mind have inherent and native tongues (Twitter, anyone?). But it does serve to take you into that cultural travel, idiot abroad feel; the realm of the Wikipedian is a bizarre one, indeed.  My immediate introduction to this internet domain of globalized editing was a realization of its canon of anonymous bureaucracy.  While I have had no personal affront with its community and on the surface find it to be both civil and helpful, in attempting to understand its publishing guidelines (and duly abide by them), it is easy to recognize the trenches for a digital battleground of ego, authoritarianism and paranoia. Looking under the hood of Wikipedia you will find not only the dna of its successes, but also of its perils.  Accessing the Talk pages and Version Histories of articles divulge both the iterations of Truth and the wranglings of editors, administrators and bots that are complicating its overall effectiveness in delivering on the promise of a working body of verifiable human knowledge.

Wikipedia continues to be underpinned and guided by its original three tenets for publishing: allowing No Original Research, editing from a Neutral Point of View, and Verifiability.  All good things, right? These pillars have served us fascinatingly well with Wikipedia; it has eliminated the static, volume-bound Britannica's into a seemingly audacious attempt at a complete, living and breathing catalog of human knowledge. But this is a machine that has begun to eat itself, biting off the arms and suturing at the very joints that propelled it to the top of every search engine result in the first place. In the current World of Wikipedia, newcomers are affronted by a frozen, foreign land of arcane guidelines and an often abrasive set of editors that  voraciously defend its digital borders.

Warring with Wikipedians

I won't get into even a generic description and exampling of Wiki publishing and behavioral guidelines, most of which I am perfectly fine with; there's nothing wrong with a good working set of standards.  Nor am I setting out to disparage unnecessarily Wikipedia's community of volunteer editors - they are the ones that have made all of this happen to begin with, and face an almost impossible burden of scale.  I have yet to run afoul of any Wikipedia Administrators or Wiki-Editors ( aka "WikiPolice"), even though there are open disclaimers that they even exist, but my time and exposure thus far within the "community" provides plenty of recognition that it is inevitable.  If they don't get to me first, their army of Bots certainly will. 

Firstly, "original research" is likely to get you into "wiki-trouble" to begin with, violating one of its paramount tenets and just as much an act of digital terrorism, if not more, than being involved with something too "personally".   Therefore, our efforts towards a comprehensive presentation of factual, referenceable knowns for OpenStack distributions isn't the stuff Wikipedia wants, and with some valid reason. Fair enough. But getting going with our contribution uncovered a myriad of bizarre guidelines and rulings that are seemingly doled out arbitrarily, if not robotically.   After two days of diligently trying to ensure I fully educated myself in Wiki-Guidelines in preparing our content for publication, I was actually too hesitant to even attempt the most basic of edits, even on my own User page, fearing I would unwittingly perpetrate a crime against some ambiguous or buried-forty-layers-deep link to yet another page of rules that would doom the article forever from seeing the light of Wiki-approval.

Wikipedia, while free, isn't free of some very real and concerning issues; it currently suffers from its own editing guidelines and their enforcement, from vandalism of the Truth and from a sterility of innovation.  It is self-limiting to interpretations that a significant number of reputable authorities have supported; it is rife with opportunity for those that shout the loudest to overwhelm an actual truth.  The literal truth is, the truth may be too hard to recognize anymore on Wikipedia, even as a contributing editor.  To say the least, this has been an interesting foray into a world of disappointment and disillusionment, of deceit and downright...

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

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hile I obviously know better than to have ever used much of the Internet's return on fact-finding as gospel, I believe most of us have both accepted and used Wikipedia at some point in our collectivizing of information. I certainly have utilized it as a general point of reference for most things, but usually just as a place where I begin to understand; it provides a great entry point to exploring additional information to formulate your own understanding of a Truth. This is where Wikipedia once worked well, serving to gain a generalized yet validated understanding of something, to then pursue a more complete truth. However, I don't think most of the internet world realizes it "ain't what it used to be", or even is what we have thought it was; for years I have witnessed many Wikipedia references as literal, factual source and validation in everything from intellectual works to corporate presentations.

Wikipedia is a good idea functioning poorly; simply another episode of "I Saw It on the Internet, So It Must Be True":

Its prevalence and prominence have lulled us into a sense of a secured truth here; the most disconcerting realization is the possibility and potential for making non-truths literal, accepted ones.  I now shudder to think how often I actually have used Wikipedia references in factual, hopefully academic content only to really discover here that the truth is anything but, and how easy it is to not realize how it can be manipulated, unchecked. I should have realized, but did not how much Wikipedia can be manipulated by both individuals and corporations in how they represent themselves, and misrepresent others. Recent research by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) (Perceptions of Wikipedia by Public Relations Professionals: A Comparison of 2012 and 2013 Surveys) and the collection of reference material I've enlisted below provides plenty of scope on the breadth and severity of Wikipedia's inner workings that present it with real problems in presenting the real Truth. 

prsa research results infographic

Making WikiWorkable

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s much as I had looked forward to the community of Wikipedia and providing valid, referenceable content (admittedly, I will publish the work on the OpenStack matrix and see how long it survives), but there isn't much point to committing such effort for the benefit of a larger whole where it could easily be vandalized, misrepresented or deleted entirely by the nefarious few. Or worse; having its meaning lessened or even falsified by its Wiki-Assocation. What we need here is a Wakepedia, a concerted wake up call and effort in making Wiki-Workable again; those efforts will need to foment from within. The weaknesses of Wikipedia are in its presumption of goodwill and trust, in its weak sense of community and in its lack of innovation. As DiStaso from PRSA notes: "That status quo can't continue."

Why do I care? I admittedly find the Wikipedia construct as a distributive computing parallel of cloud.  On Wikipedia "the author" is distributed as a democracy of intellect; knowledge is provisional, it is crowd-sourced by a "hive mind".  An exceptional read in this vein is provided in Maria Bustillos' post "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert" - the line between author and reader has blurred, knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory, collaborative by the moment.  The Truth is evolving; it is just as iterative as Wikipedia itself, showing a willingness to consider the present with identical urgency to the past.  It's important the original promise of Wikipedia works towards its potential.

I have no masterplan for salvaging Wikipedia; making it work well again will be an evolving commitment of its community, much like the iterative Truth it pursues:

    • More Help from the Humans: increasing its human power over assessment and valuation is much needed; the English volunteer workforce has shrunk by more than one-third since 2007 and is still declining - the current volunteer workforce simply has too much editing to do to be effective;
    • More Diversity Amongst the Humans: the current dominance of editorial and administrative perspective by white, North American males has got to diversify - immediately;
    • More Human-like: strengthened spirit of community - purge the crushing bureaucracy and abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers;
    • More Innovation: the tethered organization of web pages with drab black and white text and hyperlinks is unrecognizable to generations using social platforms - as a testament to the Internet's technological prowess, it should at least look like one!

 If You Found the Above Worth Reading? You May Also Find Interesting:

The Decline of Wikipedia

The 'Undue Weight' of Truth on Wikipedia

Revenge, Ego and the Corruption of Wikipedia

Wikipedia, What Does Judith Newman Have to Do to Get a Page?

How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit

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