Friday, December 30, 2005

On Wikipedia and what really matters

Though I'm far from being an expert, I often find myself explaining "things internet" to people. Or maybe explaining isn't the right word. It's more like talking really enthusiastically -- fanatically, say some who know me well (they're the ones who roll their eyes when the subject of blogging comes up).

Anyhow, I was at a gathering of old friends and former colleagues yesterday when the subject of Wikipedia arose. "Wiki what?" they asked when I suggested a friend begin her search for something or other at Wiki rather than Google.

And so I offered my short explanation: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia on the web, open source that anyone can edit, very comprehensive, monitored by anyone and everyone, etc.

"But how do you know it's accurate?"

It's a fair enough question. I tried to explain my limited understanding of the dynamic of open source in as much time as you get with people who are cocktailing and trying to do a year's worth of catching up in five minutes, which is to say my response was kind of lame. Then today I came across this post on Wired Magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's blog The Long Tail (subject of another post, another day). Anderson sets up by answering the question, "Why are people uncomfortable with Wikipedia, Google, even blogs":
Because these systems operate on the alien logic of probabilistic statistics, which sacrifices perfection at the microscale for optimization at the macroscale.
Then he goes on:
Our brains aren't wired to think in terms of statistics and probability. We want to know whether an encyclopedia entry is right or wrong. We want to know that there's a wise hand (ideally human) guiding Google's results. We want to trust what we read.

When professionals--editors, academics, journalists--are running the show, we at least know that it's someone's job to look out for such things as accuracy. But now we're depending more and more on systems where nobody's in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren't perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They're designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale.
"Is Wikipedia 'authoritative?'" Anderson asks, answering, "Well, no. But what really is?" Then:
The good thing about probabilistic systems is that they benefit from the wisdom of the crowd and as a result can scale nicely both in breadth and depth. But because they do this by sacrificing absolute certainty on the microscale, you need to take any single result with a grain of salt. ... Wikipedia "should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts."
Two things I'd have my information-seeking friends take away from this: 1)Wikipedia is a first stop in a quest for information, a quest that, because of the internet, now can take you further and wider than has ever been possible in history, and 2) the wisdom of the crowd will be the influencer for the spread of knowledge and information from here on out. No more will "they" tell us what to buy, think, believe, feel ... increasingly, it is us -- consumers, the "citizen press," bloggers, and legions of others who are finding a voice on the 'net -- telling them what we want, what is true, what really matters. And we are a pretty powerful force. Keep watching, you'll see.