24 July 2008

In which I belabor metaphors to their breaking points

Eric asked:
Whence Wikipedia?

I thought about elaborating on that, but every other question I came up with started to show my own prejudices; I'll leave it more open-ended and give you a chance (if you'd like) to riff on the future of Wikipedia.

Whence Wikipedia?

I think about Wikipedia in terms of the Greek Fates (or, more accurately (and this will highlight just how much of a total loser roleplayer I am), the Garou Triat of Wyld, Weaver, and Wyrm). The one who spins new thread, the one who weaves the thread into useful fabric, and the one who clips excess thread. The editor who creates new articles on interesting topics they've found or adds new content to existing ones; the editor who formats them to standards, revises them, organizes them into categories, and finds citations for them; the editor who scrutinizes them for notability and deletes or redirects the unacceptable ones.

In the beginning there was mostly content creation. Then came the other two kinds of editors, and shortly thereafter there were admins and bureaucrats - editors who wove or clipped other editors rather than articles themselves. From anarchy there arose a massive tangled bureaucracy - which, having grown organically rather than along any kind of plan, looks to the average outsider like a Gordian knot.

Hence Wikipedia?

Well, it remains to be seen whether we can have a proper balance between the weavers and the cutters - a stable, long-lasting one. In the cosmology of the Garou, the Weaver went mad with her thread and ensnared the Wyrm, who also went mad with destruction, and because of the struggle between the two, the Wyld is dying out. On Wikipedia, all the arguments about notability, citations needed, issues of format, following of procedures and protocols and so forth are driving away the spinners.

Some of the spinners are simply surprised and confused to find structure where they expected chaos, while others have trouble wrapping their minds around the prevailing paradigm (that is, it's not about editors, it's about articles). Even aside from those, however, many would-be spinners (and some would-be weavers) take one look at the Gordian knot and just turn around and go away.

Can the bureaucracy be woven into a useful tapestry that helps more than it hinders? Or do we need a hero to come along with a sword? I don't know, but I lean toward the former much more than the latter.

How Now Wikipedia?

Editting for Wikipedia is a lot like making sandcastles. At any moment, a big wave might come by and revert your masterful work of art to a pile of sand.


Nathan said...

There was a cute thing on jonsonblog the other day. He decided to give the Pareto Principle an AKA, naming it after a friend of his. The AKA stayed on Wiki long enough to be cited by others.

Eric said...

Interesting thoughts.

I do have two questions that come to mind in response.

The first is merely to wonder if Wikipedia might drive away so many "spinners" that it falls into a cycle of editors weaving and clipping the same content over and over again? If something like that were to happen--and it wouldn't have to be all spinners departing, just enough that the dominant activity on Wikipedia is debating "established" information, would that bode well for the site?

The second question, which is kind of related but not, and harder to phrase: you focus on how the tapestry is produced, but not how it's used, which seems relevant to the former. If Wikipedia is an end to itself--just a block of amassed knowledge or belief--then it may not matter how Wikipedia is used. But if Wikipedia is to be considered a reference, that is something that is used, then wouldn't it be about the users, not the editors nor the articles?

I'm having a hard time formulating the thought. I suppose what I'm getting at is that in formal scholastic work, the reason citation, verification and qualification is important in an article is because it impacts how the article can be reused. (A poorly-sourced article full of unverifiable information by an incompetent author is of little value to future users who might want to build on the article or use it to support original work.)

There are times, looking at Wikipedia articles or discussion tabs, that I get a distinct sense that some editors are less concerned with an article's usefulness as a reference point than they are with the article approaching some sort of Platonic ideal of a Wikipedia article. I may be wrong about this, but that's sometimes how things come off to an outsider.

Any further thoughts? Did any of the above even make sense? (Probably not. Sorry.)

Megadeus said...

re: sandcastles

You also get the jerks who take perverse pleasure in knocking over other people's sandcastles. The bigger and more intricate, the more fun they are to destroy. Bonus points if you can convince your friends to help destroy them.

Jeri said...

I was doing some research on Wikipedia on computer programming languages and the results were pretty hilarious - very abstract and theoretical, written by compsci academics with too much time on their hands. They were well referenced but completely useless. :P

So, all the guidelines in the world may keep the process intact but not necessarily give you a useful product.

MWT said...

(I don't think I've ever claimed to be timely about replies to things, have I? >.> )

Nathan: Yeah, there are certainly lazy editors on there who don't check their facts very thoroughly.

1. Well, the thing of it is, most people aren't exclusively one type of editor over all others. So yeah, it's unlikely that you'd ever end up with NO new material being added. (Especially when you consider that the people who think Wikipedia is an excellent place for free advertisement, or the 13 year olds who think anything out of their clever little heads deserve articles, are never going to go away....)

I think that endlessly polishing the existing material would eventually result in some truly excellent articles. If someone were to decree that yes, we've got all the topics we want and we don't want any more, it's time to give the perpetual work-in-progress an end, then that sort of activity would be very much warranted. In the end you'd have a "finished" finite product - just like you would've with a "real" encyclopedia.

Deciding where the stopping point is is a common conundrum in a wide variety of other fields too. We run into it in science all the time, i.e. when do we stop gathering and analyzing new data and start turning it into discrete chunks of research projects with defined beginnings, middles and ends, that can become individual papers of one-question/one-answer?

Uhh. I guess that was a tangent. Unlike Michelle, I'm incapable of bringing my tangents back around to the original topic, so I'll just move on to the second question... ;)

2. Users!
Well, as with any written communication, of course the users are the final consumer of the thing. That's the whole point of revising and reorganizing, to try to make what's written as clearly understandable as possible to a wide general audience.

Or at least, that's MY view of it. As Jeri notes, there are quite a lot of programming articles that are basically useless to the average layperson. A lot of the math and science articles are like that too, which defeats the whole purpose of having a Wikipedia in my opinion. But scientists (and engineers and programmers and etc.) do tend to be notoriously bad about translating what they do into English. There's a subtle balance point between accuracy and intelligibility, and it's kind of an art form to find it.

Megadeus: that's why there are admins and bureaucrats now. That's why hierarchy and bureaucracy arises out of anarchy - because unfortunately not everyone is capable of behaving like responsible adults.

Jeri: I sort of folded in my comments to your comment in Eric Part II.

Eric said...

(I don't have anything to add at the moment, but I did want to thank you for the further response.)

(Also: this blog is your house and you have a life--don't worry about "timeliness." Plus, it's the web--someone could be reading this thread a year from now and not know when the conversation occurred.)

(True but off-topic anecdote that's not meant as a hijack: a few months ago PZ Myers--I think it was Myers--had a blog entry about a New Jersey couple who had been turned down by foster parents because they were atheists. Myers was up in arms, I was up in arms, lots of his readers were up in arms--I'm just glad I was one of the few who went and looked at the article he'd stumbled across on Time magazine's website before I posted. Turned out the story was accurate...

...in 1973. The article was only "new" insofar as it had just been added to the online archives that week. So I unwadded my underwear and calmed down.

T3h webz r 3t3rna1.)

Eric said...

I'm sorry, "...turned down by New Jersey as foster parents," I went back to change the sentence and forgot what I was doing in the text box. Hope that's clearer now.

MWT said...

((You forgot to put parentheses around your correction post. ;) ))