Thursday, September 01, 2011

Masks at the masked ball

There is an interesting discussion here between some of Wikipedia’s dwindling number of competent editors. The complaint is the usual one about the Wikimedia foundation's obsession with the overall number of editors, rather than the quality of work that editors produce. “Certain people associated with the Foundation have been saying for years that it doesn't matter who makes the edits; we are all just masks at the masked ball, and what matters is numbers alone. I suspect they'll start to see the folly of that position, though it may take a few years".

I suspect the Foundation will not see the folly of that position, because of its deep-rooted faith in crowdsourcing. The official teaching of the church of Wikipedia is that editors are easily replaceable units of work, each of whose contributions are equally valuable. Supposedly, large numbers of small edits will, over time, make an article 'drift' towards quality and accuracy, even if each individual edit only improves the article imperceptibly.

But as one of the editors comments (and I am certain she is right) “when the history of Wikipedia is written, we're going to be astonished by the small number of people who created and maintained it”. Another agrees that “crowd-sourcing is largely irrelevant, as most articles are edited by very few editors, often only two or three, which is hardly a crowd, and almost all of the content often comes from only one or two editors”.

This is almost certainly true. Good articles are written by a handful of good editors. The same is true of bad articles, which are nearly always the result of a single spectularly incompetent and inept author writing a personal essay about a favourite subject. See e..g Intellectual history (“The concept of the intellectual is relatively recent”) almost entirely written by this chap. Or how about the really awful History of Europe, quite an important subject, you would think, and deserving of thoughtful treatment, but contains such gems as “During this time many Lords and Nobles ruled the church. The Monks of Cluny worked hard to establish a church where there were no Lords or Nobles ruling it. They succeeded”.

Nor does the crowd always pick up even the easily correctable mistakes. In May 2005, someone claimed that Belgian businessman Georges Jacobs (born in the late 1940s) was a commander of the Waffen SS's 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien (presumably disbanded in 1945). The claim was removed only recently (August 2010), and so had been there 6 years without any of the ‘crowd’ noticing.

But then why are the masks complaining, while they continue to edit Wikipedia?  The whole experiment only appears to work while these poorly rewarded individuals fight a losing battle against a tidal wave of vandalism and illiteracy.  They need to stop fighting, get a life, and watch Wikipedia work out a solution for itself.  (And if Connolley is reading this, that means him too).


William M. Connolley said...

Oh go on then: you tweaked me so I'll tweak. First, I note that the group of malcontents you point at as competent includes a number of bozos. Second, if you don't care about wiki, you shouldn't mail me about articles in error hoping for corrections :-). But third: wiki is there. It is used as a useful reference by many people. It could be better. Its governance at the upper levels is incompetent. But its there.

Edward Ockham said...

Oh dear.