January 03, 2006
Why the media can't get Wikipedia right
An article from David Weinberger:
Jimmy has been all over the news telling people that Wikipedia is not yet as reliable as the Britannica, that students shouldn't cite it, that you should take every article with a grain of salt. (One Wikipedian suggested to me that such a disclaimer ought to be on every page; I agree.) The media are acting as if this is a humbling confession when in fact it's been what Jimmy and Wikipedians have been saying from the first day of this remarkable, and remarkably successful experiment in building an inclusive encyclopedia together.
Posted by dcoates at January 03, 2006 11:07 AM
The media literally can't hear that humility, which reflects accurately the fluid and uneven quality of Wikipedia. The media — amplifying our general cultural assumptions — have come to expect knowledge to be coupled with arrogance1 : If you claim to know X, then you've also been claiming that you're right and those who disagree are wrong. A leather-bound, published encyclopedia trades on this aura of utter rightness (as does a freebie e-newsletter, albeit it to a lesser degree).The media have a cognitive problem with a publisher of knowledge that modestly does not claim perfect reliability, does not back up that claim through a chain of credentialed individuals, and that does not believe the best way to assure the quality of knowledge is by disciplining individuals for their failures. Arrogance, individual heroism, accountability and discipline ... those have been the hallmarks of the institutions that propagate knowledge.2
With Wikipedia, the balance of knowing shifts from the individual to the social process. The solution to a failure of knowledge (as the Seigenthaler entry clearly was) is to fix the social process, while acknowledging that it will never work perfectly. There are still individuals involved, of course, but Wikipedia reputations are made and advanced by being consistent and persistent contributors to the social process. Yes, persistent violators of the social trust can be banished from Wikipedia, but the threat of banishment is not what keeps good contributors contributing well.