Criticisms of wikipedia readers

The wikipedia article on Criticisms of Wikipedia

The comparison to the Encyclopædia Britannica runs throughout, and the issue of authority/reliability:

The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window. (Philip Bradley)

Now I don’t believe that printed publications are all that reliable, having read a bunch myself and even written a few, but it seems that there is another important difference between Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. This is not a difference concerning the writing and writers, but a difference in the readers, or at least a difference in the tacit view of the readers the two encyclopaedia’s have. From the Wikipedia Criticisms article:

to the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an “encyclopedia”. This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn’t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do. (Robert McHenry, former editor in chief EB)

Wikipedia’s detractors imply that readers are defenceless, passive – I imagine them arriving in the shining halls of Wikipedia like wide-eyed children stumbling first time into some emporer’s Palace. Like children they are easy prey for the court tricksters and schemers with their silver tongues, beautiful clothes and easy, cosmopolitan ways.

The view of the readers is made more explicit in this quote from the former editor in chief of EB:

The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.

Again passivity, but the second theme here is clear – infection. Innocent children’s mind, polluted by wikipedia’s unsanitised intellectual bugs.

Do we believe that people are that stupid, that they are this weak? With the EB model where a cannon of knowledge is prepared centrally and distributed to a passive audience this model of the reader is appropriate. For Wikipedia, based on the idea of a community of dual writers-readers, it is not so clear that it is.

4 replies on “Criticisms of wikipedia readers”

surely wikipedia is about democratization of knowledge too, n’est pas?

if i write a wikipedia entry about tom stafford…. with some outrageous slurs upon your character …. you can edit it … and the process is moderated. a bit like having election monitors.

it’s a kind of imperfect peer review. and as we know, peer review in academia isn’t a objective science ….

The comparisons between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia are very interesting.

Encyclopaedia Britannica never thought that an open source product like Wikipedia would seriously challenge the credibility of it’s brand. They were wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica’s staff seriously misread the global market. They are now very worried about the success of a free Wikipedia vs their subscription model.

It is interesting that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is developing a new search engine. It is the combination of a) improved search engines and b) the success of Wikipedia that has put financial pressure on Encyclopedia Britannica over recent years. Many institutions and individuals are questioning the need to subscribe to Encyclopaedia Britannica when the content is free on the internet. Google even has free direct links to Encyclopaedia Britannica’s main database !!

Wikipedia is quite good when the subject is uncontentious. When it’s not, the cranks who surf all day long and have nothing else to do will win. Most articles on Belgium, e.g., have been written or edited by Flemish nationalists who try to impose their views by stealth. Moreover, there is something fundamentally wrong with Wikipedia’s POV policy; some views just do not deserve to be treated equally, e.g. when they fly in the face of historical or scientific truth. I still believe Wikipedia is a good instrument, but it has its flaws.

Adding to Hubert’s comment, the structure of Wikipedia has really broken down with global warming, because climatologists and cranks (or, for that matter, Esso) are both treated as if they have equal claims to ‘fact’. This is addressed in detail in an interesting, if not especially even-handed New Yorker article (the subheading ‘Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?’ is a giveaway):

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