DragonCon – Ask A Wiki Admin

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Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

These aren’t deleted lyrics by John Lennon, they are the words of Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, in a 2009 request for donations.  I tend to use Wikipedia quite a bit, as evidenced by topical links in my posts.   Last weekend, at DragonCon, the Electronic Frontiers Forum (one of many topical “tracks” of presentations, Q&A, discussions, etc.) held an “Ask a Wiki Admin” panel, hosted by Elonka Dunin, a 5 year volunteer admin for the site.

Following are some statistics she presented.

  • 5,000 new articles per day are posted on Wiki
  • 2,000 of which are approved and “stick”
  • 1/3 of U.S. internet users have visited Wikipedia
  • 8% of the US population visits the site each day.
  • Wiki is in the top 10 of most visited internet sites.
  • Currently 3.4 million articles in English on Wiki (16M in total).
  • 1,753 Admins exist for the English version.

All well and good.  But, could it eventually contain the sum of all human knowledge?  Well, no.  I mean, really?  Puhleez!  This is quite an overstatement of goals and vision, unless we are to somehow download our lives just prior to expiration.

More realistically, could it then be a world-class encyclopedia of subject matter?  Some probably would suggest that it already is.  Certainly I find it helpful, and it’s literally (or is it figuratively?) at my fingertips.  When I think of Encyclopedias, I remember the hardly used set that my parents stuffed into my room as a kid.  It had the smell of “established and reliable though infrequently read.”

That said, each article was sourced, and, if I were to think upon it at that age, had some sort of infallibility to it.  It’s printed, it lists  its sources, it’s regularly updated… therefore, it must maintain some proximity to truth.

Wikipedia has 35 employees (as of 2009) who alone cannot muster their founder’s vision, not to mention the tasks at hand. Therefore, they have 1755 administrators who serve in a limited editorial capacity.  Their main responsibility, as Ms. Dunin repeatedly coined, was to “whack-a-mole,” hereafter referred to as WAM. 

Articles to Wikipedia can be uploaded by anyone, and anyone can edit existing content.  It’s an efficient means of gaining and improving content.  However, ease of access (internet), free time, and a will to be mischievous together result in moles aplenty who are happy to undermine the content.  Admins see all new articles as they are posted, and if they smack of social networking, advertising, or irrelevancy, they get a WAM.

Edited content?  Unless an edit adds value to the content or if the editing is done to streamline existing content to meet Wiki’s preferred formatting, WAM, with a “reversion” of the content to its prior form.  Someone is minding the store.  Wikipedia, after all, is neither built to advertise car dealerships nor to serve as a digitized religious battleground over the “true” history of Jerusalem – both of which were examples that she shared.

But, truth or accuracy is really the sacred ground upon which any encyclopedia must be tested.  Despite it’s “In the News” section, Wiki does not aspire to be a news outlet – specifically, a source of events as they happen.  Instead, Wikipedia should re-present content that is sourced credibly.  Interestingly, many subjects that pass the initial (and apparently brief) test of being appropriate subject matter are not fully evaluated/verified unless or until someone challenges the content.  At that point, the information has to be referenced to some publication, somewhere, by which the information could reasonably be verified by independent means – a newspaper, a literary journal, a book, a legitimately documented web site, etc. 

That works for accuracy, but not necessarily truth.  Admins handle the credibility of posted topics, not the accuracy of the content.  They’re not subject matter experts or content editors themselves.  Many, in fact, may even be high school kids.  The means of becoming an admin is basically to provide useful formatting updates to topics which are not presented in Wiki’s preferred form.  Do enough, and you get noticed.  That provides administrative help, but it does not speak to the credibility of the person behind the edits – an issue of which they’re aware. 

Admins have the following options for handling problems with users of the site:

  • block/unblock users
  • delete/undelete content pages
  • protect/unprotect pages (in total, or limit editing to certain users)
  • view related histories of content/edits made by users to gauge helpful/harmful intent

In reaching toward the summation of human knowledge, we all should understand that no one is perfect.  Any human endeavor risks fallacy. 

I left with two issues (neither of which would prevent me from using the site):

1) Sourcing of content.  Obviously, this is a good thing.  But, whether a source is credible is iffy.  They’re not staffed adequately to check out the sources, though they do what they can.  My kids are not allowed to reference Wiki as a source for their school papers.  It seems that most kids reference the references at the bottom of the Wiki content.  Does anyone actually read the references?

A future challenge may also be the availability of credible sources.  As newspapers close and news information is nationalized, there may be fewer local means of documenting people/persons/things as time marches forward – i.e., less documented news.  The future risks being documented by conglomerates or the powerful.  Maybe. 

2) Minority viewpoint.  If not a matter of settled fact, majority viewpoints are presented as a consensus viewpoint.  Opposing views, if “sufficiently” sized and documented, are often presented as such.  While Wiki obviously has no obligation to provide all viewpoints, “the sum of human knowledge” would dictate that they should. 

I, for one, wouldn’t want to trudge through all of that, and it’s not practical to do so.  So then we enter the realm of “what is reasonable?”   Perhaps playing to the audience, Ms. Dunin indicated that a topic mentioned on CNN or other news sources would be considered to be credibly sourced.  However, and I paraphrase, “Though, if it’s Fox News, and they’re the only source that reports something, then no.”   Bias is a terrible thing in the chronicling of life.

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