How important is Wikipedia?

As I’m trying to shuffle my outline around, I’m asking myself “How important is Wikipedia?”

Wikipedia serves as one of the two dominant schemas in the book (the other being Surowiecki’s four conditions in The Wisdoms of Crowds), but given that this is a practical theology book, I don’t want to spend any more time on Wikipedia than is needed.  It’s the classic writers conundrum: How much is enough, and how much is too much?

Here’s what I know:

  • Talking about the role of “Users,” “Administrators,” and Jimmy Wales as “The Benevolent Dictator” are must haves.  The book is about open source leadership – I can’t get away with not addressing Wikipedia’s leadership structure.
  • It seems that the “Expert vs. Amateur” issue has to be taken on, including its peripheral aspects: user-generated content (UCG) and consensus reality (CR). My question, however, is how deep to go with the peripherals?  UGC seem quite germane to the project (content that is not sourced from an expert) but is CR needed?  One reason people bad-mouth Wikipedia is due to what they perceive as its questionable relationship to “truth.”  This is certainly related to the leadership question, but is it related enough for a project about church leadership?
  • The reason Wikipedia functions as well as it does is because it’s clear what it is and what it isn’t.  The Five Pillars have to be included and likened to a congregation’s normative practices/understandings.

Where I’m stuck (I think) is how important the history and development of Wikipedia is.  Given what you know of Wikipedia, what would you say?

13 thoughts on “How important is Wikipedia?

  1. Speaking from the higher edu segment, Wikipedia is about the most demonized thing out there. Why? Mistrust over the lack of gatekeepers to filter out standardized facts. Two thoughts.

    1) The Texas board of education voted to curve social studies textbooks and so, curricula, to a more “conservative” set of standard knowledge. Clearly they are gatekeepers. However gatekeepers have in their power the ability to filter in ways that obscure facts for the purpose of serving ideological frameworks. Going back to Wikipedia, the model does not allow for a select group of filters to massage facts and curve facts to tell specific meta-narratives as is the case with Texas. The truth is that Wikipedia is as or more accurate than standard encyclopaedic sources. Even the ALA can’t corroborate their assertions that it is less true than Britannica or other sources. Here’s a really good thread with links to the issue:

    In fact, this is one argument that argues not just for the usefulness of Wikipedia as an open-source alternative, it argues that Wikipedia needs to use more open access research journals in its referencing!

    2) The development isn’t as vital as what it is and what it does. It is a real time, scalable resource that grows with the news as it happens. Who are the caretakers? It’s not a bunch of experts alone, but anyone that includes experts who can correct when things are misleading. The law of probability suggests that the more people create the knowledge, the greater the chance it will balance and regress towards the mean over time. That is what I think is critical to what you are doing. Software is one thing, but let’s face it, not everyone will have the time or resources to learn programming to be really effective in creating it. Anyone who can type can augment something like Wikipedia.

    • Dude, Drew – I’ve said it before, but I love your brain.

      You just saved me a lot of time rummaging for resources. A quick skim says those links look nice. Hadn’t seen the educause links before thank.

      You make a good point here: Self-deception, by definition, cannot neutralize itself. Let’s assume that the TX BoE has the state’s best interest at heart, adding in (what I would consider to be) a corrective element is a great thing, and will only benefit the project.

      As you wrote “regress towards the mean” – exactly. I’m totally stealing that. 😉

  2. Your questions led me to do a little digging about Wikipedia, and now I have a few questions for you.

    1. The first of the five pillars of Wikipedia says, “Wikipedia is an encyclopedia…. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy: unreferenced material may be removed, so please provide references. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong here.” This reminds me of the line from “Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” I don’t pretend to understand the role of experts in Wikipedia, but it seems clear that it does recognize experts and that not all sources are considered equal. So what is the difference between a gatekeeper and an expert? How “open” is “open structure”–really? (I agree you need to deal with Wikipedia’s leadership structure. Why is there such debate about whether Wales is founder or co-founder? If open source is real and valuable, why does it matter who gets the credit?)

    2. The Wikipedia bio about Wales says, “Wales is a self-avowed ‘Objectivist to the core.'” And the Wikipedia article on objectivism says it holds (among other things) “that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights,…” How does this fit with Paul’s image of the body of Christ? Do Wales’s objectivist roots suggest any limitations in the application of Wiki thinking to the church?

    • These are some very helpful questions.

      1) I’m not sure at this moment where to plug this in the outline, but there is a motif that kept recurring in all my research on Wikipedia: “Verifiability not truth.” Here’s a sectin from my notes on it:

      I am struck by the fact that “truth,” while certainly important to Wikipedians, is not the ultimate goal. To be sure, they want a resource that is accurate and reliable, but it appears they are more conerned with how they get there, rather than the “there” they are trying to reach. This smacks of Yoder and Hauerwas.

      So, yes, all editors are equal, but some are more equal than others. But why? My understanding is that Wikipedia has set itself up to be a kind of community that values a “track record” (so to speak). If an editor demonstrates through their actions that they have the projects best interest at heart and has contributed constructively to the project in the past, a lot of deference is shown to her whether I agree with her or not. If I know that she is adhering to the principle of “verifiability not truth” the same as me, then I’m going to (to a certain extent) trust her data.

      Take our relationship for example (I’m outing you here – sorry): I have now entered the world of the publisher you work for, and as my editor I am going to trust that you have this projects best interest at heart so I will highly value what you say and write unless you give me a reason not to. this can be contrasted with the ramdom blog troll that may/may not show up here and tell me “what this book really should be a bout.”

      Same as in the church – I’m going to trust the member that is a) closest to the issue at hand who has b) demonstrated a commitment to the work and ministry of the congregation. This as opposed to that congregational crank who everyone perceives as selfish or the pastor/elder with a god complex.

      Does that make sense? Do you buy it?

      The kerfuffle over Wales’ status as co-/founder is because, for all his wonderfulness, lots of folks think Jimmy kinda did his old partner wrong. Yet another reason to not lodge power in one person?

      2) This raises the issue of how much to profile Jimbo (they actually call him that!) and how much to focus on the role he plays in the community. I want to skew to the later, but I think that the former might also have a place. I think I’ll take a look in my research at the philosophy held by Linus Torvalds (creator and namesake or Linux) as well. He occupies a similar position in the Linux community and I would be interested to see if his understanding was born of the same impulse.

      To a certain degree it seems congruent with The Golden Rule. I haven’t spent a ton of time on his objectivism, but I would think that part of being an objectivist is the recognition that my view is a subjective one and that the only way to get close to the “truth” is by employing the POVs of others. Perhaps that’s an “enlightened objectivism”? Does that logic fly?

      re: “Body of Christ” & limits: Right, this will be a primary biblical image so there does need to be a rectifying of some sort. I guess I want to claim that Wales’ objectivism is not necessary to the functioning of an open source community. I’ll need to work with that in my brain a bit more.

      • 1. “Verifiability not truth” makes me think about the relationship between experience and theology. The way I understood my seminary training, I was expected to subscribe to particular theologies, even if they didn’t accurately describe (or fit with) my experience. As I gradually came to understand the theological enterprise, I began to see that theology (supposed truth) wasn’t particularly useful to me if it didn’t match my experience (I couldn’t verify the theology). When I was in confirmation class, our pastor once told me (no doubt out of considerable frustration about my many questions), “There are some things you just have to believe.” Even as a 13-year-old, I didn’t buy it! The phrase also makes me think about an ongoing debate my husband and I have about the difference between talk radio and traditional news media. Anyone can call up a talk show and blather on, making whatever claims her fertile mind creates, but rarely is there any way for a listener to go back to the speaker and follow up on those claims–to verify. Traditional media reporters might spout as much blather, but at least I can see a path back to the person and can say, “Show me how you came to this conclusion.”

        My comments don’t directly address your question about whether the speaker has your or the community’s or an enterprise’s best interest at heart, although perhaps we’re both pointing to another aphorism: “Trust but verify.”

        2. My Lutheran underpinnings are going to show here. I think you might want to talk about Wales as one example of a greater principle at work in all of this: original sin. We see it in Wikipedia. Folks deliberately post false info, to the point that on occasion, pages are taken down; the tampering is just too much for The Keepers to deal with. So we can be idealistic about the wisdom of the community, but open source is vulnerable to all the same “principalities and powers” as the rest of creation.

        I’ll be interested in seeing what you learn about objectivism–if it turns out you need to talk about it at all. From my tiny peek at it, however, I didn’t see any recognition that an individual’s view is subjective. I agree that clarifying the place of objectivism in open source community is key.

  3. It seems to me that one of the real benefits of wikipedia is that while it does value expertise, it opens the door for anyone to be an expert. So rather than weeding out who the experts are and amplifying their voice, it allows everyone to “step up” and amplify their voice and then lets the community bubble up the expertise to the top. What this does is create a community that can be radically inclusive without sacrificing the quality of the UGC. The content that isn’t very good is naturally eliminated as waste, (like the body) and the beneficial remains to sustain the community. The by product of this that really excites me when applied to the church community is that it leaves the door open for ongoing, mutual and reciprocal reconciliation. It gently pushes people to be better content providers and contributors rather than passive consumers. If your content is filtered out, you can go back to the drawing board and recreate your contribution to make it better. So in the end, the content available to the community is better, but so is your ability to create useful content. Does that make sense?

    • I think it does, and I think that’s right.

      A climate is created where “failure” is not a dirty word. An idea didn’t work? Not a big deal and no need to blame the church board for shutting it down/not supporting it. There are any number of reasons it may not have caught and the leadership can help you to refine your call and maybe more effectively enact it.

      Are we on the same page?

    • Yes! They are both built up because, as Reggie McNeal says in Missional Renaissance, “the scorecard has changed.” The methods we use to measure success have changed to a win-win dynamic: the church “succeeds” if you are able to engage the world missionally because of the support, etc. you’ve received from the church.

  4. I like the idea of a little development history. The people reading this book are likely to think, “It sounds good in theory, but there’s no way our church can actually try and transition to this kind of thing. It’s too risky.” Show people where Wikipedia’s founders faced that same kind of risk (if they did). Also, if you can show something of how Wikipedia has grown in popular usage, how traditional “gatekeepers” have changed their stance towards it since its inception (if they have) it’ll give some perspective to churches who feel they’d never be able to go there.

    • I think this suggestion is a good one. I’m always struggling to keep up with cyber-whatever and usually feel behind the curve, even though I have pretty good reasons for keeping up. I wouldn’t assume all your readers are familiar with Wiki… I also wouldn’t assume that all your readers will think Wiki-thinking and living is possible or even desirable. That said, maybe the folks who decide to buy the book will already be on board–or at least open to the idea. Still, a little background would probably be helpful for those who are on the fence.

  5. Wikipedia chapter outline « The Metanoia Project

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