On a Vetted Wikipedia, Reflexivity and Investment in Quality (a.k.a. more responses to Clay)

[Also posted at M2M]

In response to Clay, i *definitely* do not believe that Wikipedia should be ignored and i definitely do not believe that Britannica is better – just different. When i said that Wikipedia will never be an encyclopedia, i am definitely referencing the current definition (although being flexible on the fact the definition does state book form). Whether the definition will expand, who knows but i don’t think it matters. Both encyclopedias and Wikipedia are knowledge resources and they will always be different. If legitimacy requires a definitional change, i’m worried. Why does it have to be an encyclopedia? Why can’t it simply be Wikipedia?

In this (long) entry, i want to make 3 points:
1) A vetted Wikipedia can have complementary value;
2) Reflexivity would be of great value for entries that interpret (not necessarily for entries that are about empirical facts);
3) Authority has to do with knowledge, investment and risk.

I am not arguing for a radical altering of Wikipedia. That said, i can envision new features that would complement what currently exists. When i argue that i would like a vetted version, i have a particular vision of it. I would like to go to Wikipedia, see an open entry that is universally writable with a section that has been vetted and whose authors, affiliations and motivations are listed alongside that vetted component. Let me contextualize this through example.

Let’s talk about the Wikipedia entry on Anomie. This is a classic term from introductory sociology (and often a “define this” on a test). If i were teaching Soc101 and my students wrote this, i wouldn’t think that they got it. Now, it is a perfectly good definition and it isn’t flawed, but it’s missing much of the context and Durkheim’s essence. Two things are notably missing: religion, division of labor. While a Durkheim scholar probably would have included this, they probably would not have included its Greek roots or a band of the same name. Those additional factoids are part of what makes Wikipedia utterly lovable.

Alternatively, consider the definition of Anomie at the Emile Durkheim Archive. Here, we have citations as well as interpretation of both primary and secondary texts (and brief references to both religion and division of labor). We know the status of the author (a student in sociology), why he wrote this entry and who has checked his entry for verification. Yes, he could be lying, but this is much more reassuring than an entry written by N unknown people.

When i’m writing sociology papers, i want to understand Durkheim’s definition as deeply as possible, not simply have a passing understanding. For this reason, i would ideally have a Durkheim scholar define anomie to grok what Durkheim meant by it. That’s not always possible (although part of the reason why i take sociology classes). Instead, i try to suss it out both through the primary text and through secondary interpretations. Yet, when using secondary interpretations, i really want to understand from where the author is coming.

In anthropology, there is a concept called reflexivity. It is the process by which a research articulates and situates the biases that they bring into a situation, with the knowledge that all data acquired is interpreted and that the researcher’s biases affect that interpretation. Not everything in Wikipedia is a fact – most of it is an interpretation of some concept. Birthdates are facts. Descriptions of theories are interpretations. And the fact of the matter is that scholars rarely have the same interpretation of any theorist (a fact that results in heated debates between scholars that are utterly off-putting or perceptibly trivial to non-academics).

This comes to where i would like the combination of vetted and open portions of an entry. I would love if Wikipedia would allow scholars to write static components to entries with a publicly identified author. Let the Asian Tsunami Disaster be written at first by anyone, but let the scientists have a vetted section that explains how the quake created a tsunami.

Now, i totally agree with Clay that Wikipedia is a system not a product (another reason that the label encyclopedia is poor). Britannica and Wikipedia are both brands. Britannica’s says that each entry is well-researched and every effort is being made to convey the entire picture. The Wikipedia brand does not guarantee the same efforts nor does it guarantee equal quality between entries. It is an open-source brand that says that there is an equal opportunity for entries to be written. Different brands, different expectations, different quality.

I am not skeptical about Wikipedia – i value it intensely. But i don’t give it authority simply because it is open-source. I don’t buy into that religion.

I also believe that there is something to be said about expertise. The eccentric PhDs with their narrow focus have spent years dedicated to understanding very particular areas of knowledge. They are invested in the accuracy of a particular topic, understand the different debates and are deeply aware of the consequences of poor interpretation. They research things actively, trying to express all sides. It is not simply their authority that makes their descriptions have weight – it is also what they have to lose if they fuck up. Academics and public intellectuals risk far more when they assert bad interpretations than people whose job description does not include intellectual evolution and educating the next generation.

PS: I *love* the fact that there is a burgeoning intellectual discussion on this topic in which so many people are talking.

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2 thoughts on “On a Vetted Wikipedia, Reflexivity and Investment in Quality (a.k.a. more responses to Clay)

  1. Preoccupations

    Wikipedia and the search for truth

    The debate about Wikipedia will no doubt continue for a long time. This post is written as a small contribution to it (and assumes some familiarity with the recent round of discussions). Jimmy Wales is quoted in Wired News as

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