BY CORY DOCTOROW
Shortcut to Omniscience
You might not be able to correct the Wikipedia date
for a famous battle that you’re a worldwide expert
on, by asserting that you know it is incorrect. But
give an interview to The New York Times about how
screwed-up Wikipedia is and cite the true date, and
you can go back to the erroneous entry and correct
it without argument, by citing the fact as published
in The New York Times.
This seems completely backward and absurd
at first, but remember: Wikipedia is a collection of
facts about facts. It’s incredibly hard for the whole
world of Wikipedians to look up your credentials
and decide that you know what you’re talking about;
however, it’s simple for the editorial world to look at
The New York Times and see what they’ve reported.
And since there’s consensus that the Times is a
notable source (notwithstanding Jason Blair and
other scandals), the edit can now stand.
Being a maker in a networked society often
involves moving processes from giant factories
into humble garage workshops, thanks to cheap,
flexible tools, readily available materials, and easy
knowledge-sharing. But remember: the way you
make depends as much on how you’re organized
as on what you want to make.
When you run up against the limits of what you
can do in your garage, ask yourself: Is the way
I’m doing this inherent to what I’m doing? Have
I imported some 20th-century organizational style
that’s holding me back?
You never know: there may just be more than
one way to skin an encyclopedia.
Talk to anyone who’s tried to edit a controversial Wikipedia article and chances are you’ll be
treated to an earful of complaint. Wikipedia’s legion
of committed editors tirelessly revert the changes
wrought by newbies within minutes, often with flat
declarations of the ineligibility of the new material
for the online encyclopedia. This proves frustrating
for skilled contributors who want to correct errors.
To understand what’s going on here, you need to
appreciate what makes Wikipedia possible. Prior to
Wikipedia’s launch in 2001, the consensus was that
millions of amateurs would never be able to write
an encyclopedia together. Encyclopedias require
two things: control and expertise, and the Wikipedia
project made very little room for either.
The thing is, expertise and control are expensive.
They’re the kind of thing a publisher can raise and
charge money for, but they’re not readily available
to informal groups of amateurs. Wikipedia’s success
hinged on figuring out how to get around this handicap, and the solution was so clever — and frustrating
— that most people miss it altogether.
Here’s the thing about expertise: it’s hard to
define. It may be possible for a small group of
relatively homogenous people to agree on who is
and isn’t an expert, but getting millions of people to
do so is practically impossible. The Encyclopaedia
Britannica uses a learned editorial board to decide
who will write its entries and who will review them.
Wikipedia turns this on its head by saying,
essentially, “Anyone can write our entries, but those
entries should consist of material cited from reliable
sources.” While the Britannica says, “These facts
are true,” Wikipedia says, “It is true that these facts
were reported by these sources.” The Britannica
contains facts. Wikipedia contains facts about facts.
And this is Wikipedia’s secret weapon and its
greatest weakness. The debate over which sources
are notable is a lot more manageable than the
debate about which facts are true (though the
former is nevertheless difficult and it consumes
many Wikipedian-hours). Moving to a tractable
debate about sources makes it possible for millions
of people to collaborate on writing the encyclopedia.
But this shortcut also creates endless frustration.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica
contains facts. Wikipedia
contains facts about facts. This
is Wikipedia’s secret weapon
and its greatest weakness.
Cory Doctorow lives in London, writes science fiction novels,
co-edits Boing Boing, and fights for digital freedom.
14 Make: Volume 20