The Aardvark Speaks : essence, effervescence, obscurity. Established 2002. A weblog by Horst Prillinger. ISSN 1726-5320

June 03, 2004

When engineers make encyclopedias

I find it interesting that the response to my anti-Wikipedia rant yesterday came mostly from two groups of people:

  • People not involved in the Wikipedia project, who were mostly agreeing with me, or even expressing what I wanted to say more eloquently so that it made more sense than what I had written

  • People involved in the Wikipedia project, who reacted as if I had taken the sole meaning of their lives away from them, got very excited about the whole thing, but didn't really see my point

Reading through many of the responses of the second group, I get the feeling that my mistake is mostly being a reference librarian, who expects things (and especially reference things) to be correct and reliable, rather than being an engineer or tech person who builds things simply because it's technically possible. That would explain why next to none of these responses were defending the Wikipedia content, which I had criticised heavily, but focussed almost exclusively on defending the technical concept, which I hadn't really criticised much.

That would also explain why the engineer's principle "more is better" (as in Erik's comment "the English Wikipedia with its 275,000 articles is larger than any current general encyclopedia") seems to be more important in the case of Wikipedia than the librarian's principle "more correct is better".

However, I was finally reconciled by two voices from the Wikipedia community: first, when kellerkind confirmed that most of the work on Wikipedia indeed consists of dealing with the noise that I had criticised, and second, when I received Kai's comment, in which he conceded that Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia: "[It] is not a place to gain 'accurate information'. That is what real encyclopedias are meant for."

Q. E. D.

Posted by Horst on June 3, 2004 09:49 PM to books & bookkeeping | Tell-a-friend

We received this ping from notizen aus der provinz on June 5, 2004 07:16 AM:

Wikipedia - Aufstieg und unaufhaltsamer Fall?: Kürzlich die erste wirklich böse Wikipedia-Krtik in der Blogosphere gefunden Why Wikipedia sucks. Big time. Dass die klassischen Medien die Wikipedia mobben, ist bekannt und nachvollziehbar. Aber jetzt auch die Netizens? Auszug:It turns out that the ... [more]

We received this ping from The Aardvark Speaks on August 16, 2004 08:56 PM:

I told you so, didn't I?: I'm well aware that people who say say "I told you so" after something has gone wrong are not exactly universally loved. Still, this time I simply can't resist becoming one of these people myself. Wikipedia administrator Ulrich Fuchs resigns because Th... [more]

dieter said on June 4, 2004 08:59 AM:

Well, for once you cannot complain that your blog does not get much attention ;-)

TomK32 said on June 4, 2004 11:33 AM:

ad a) People not involved into Wikipedia seldom know how it works. Yesterday we actually recieved a mail from a journalist searching for a job. I mean, it's written almost everywhere in Wikipedia that you can edit it, no?

ad b) We don't need to defend the content (despite I was one of those who did it in the other thread) because everybody can edit it. And if his edits are not welcomed then it's because of a good reason.

When I joined German Wikipedia in 2003 we had 10.000 articles, it really sucked back then and now we have 80k articles and 70 Admins more, it's becoming a serious thing.
If you always expect things to be correct you're an idiot, maybe even believing in Creationism just because they were FPTP?!
But we have to defend or at least propagate the technical idea because it's too uncommon in nowadays world wide web. Tim Berners-Lee wrote in 1999 that editing the web is as important as surfing it.

BTW: What's your username at Wikipedia? Or are you one of the anonymous trolls? (no wonder your edits get deleted ;-)

Balazs C. said on June 4, 2004 12:03 PM:

Wow! so now the discussion is down to calling people idiots. how inviting! what I find surprising if not disgusting is the almost religious zeal of some Wikipedia defenders. and it happens just because: 'But we have to defend or at least propagate the technical idea because it's too uncommon in nowadays world wide web.' so, it's the technical idea (wow, TBL said it, it must be universally true!) that counts, not the outcome? or what?

as to the last sentence, last time I contributed something to Wikipedia (just a few typo corrections really, but every little thing helps, no?), anonymous edits were expressly encouraged. so these are now trolls?

i don't remember anyone really addressing people's concerns of how to find out whether a Wikipedia article can be trusted in its current state (which may have changed in the last few minutes, completely) or not. there were some vague suggestions of what may come, but rating systems are hard to do when the rated object changes all the time.

the zealots---and that's not all Wikipedia people who posted, but at least a few vocal ones---just seem to repeat the mantra: 1) classic editors are evil, 2) public free-for-all editing is good. amendment: if your good edits are lost or entries are just crappy, or there's some other problem, it's your own fault, not the fault of this holy mantra, which must not be changed. and anyway it's not really an encylopedia we're building, it's a revolution, you nitpicking unbelievers!

yuck. thanks, i've had enough of both "revolutions" and religions. and i used to think wikipedia was a nice encyclopedia^Wproject worth contributing some time for occasionally. no more.

Josh Cogliati said on June 8, 2004 03:13 AM:

I challenge you, Horst, to a bet:
Find 10 mistakes in english wikipedia articles as they exist between today and June 20, 2004.
If the more than 5 of those mistakes are still there in June 20, 2005, I will send you $10 (US).

Horst said on June 8, 2004 03:20 PM:

Josh, it's actually not at all unlikely that you might win this bet, which is why my criticism was _not_ that the mistakes don't eventually disappear — actually, that would be a stupid assumption, as the wiki very strongly encourages readers to correct mistakes. So I'm afraid I won't accept this challenge.

Josh Cogliati said on June 9, 2004 04:21 AM:

Hm, I would not have guessed it from your previous comment:

Wikipedia generates noise, not knowledge. Previous encyclopedias were well-researched and contained precise information that could be trusted to be correct. Wikipedia, on the other hand, contains a large amount of errors, omissions and superfluous trivia.

If you believe that mistakes will disappear, I don't see how wikipedia can fail to generate knowledge. I certainly agree that wikipedia has mistakes and inaccuracys, but so does Encyclopedia Britannica. Some of Britannica's mistakes have stayed in for over a hundred years with out being removed, which I highly doubt would happen in wikipedia. In my experience the content of wikipedia articles that have been edited by at least 10 authors (of which there are many thousands) is at least compareable to say the world book encyclopedia. I think that you are unhappy because wikipedia is not a created encyclopedia, but rather is creating an encyclopedia.

If you don't like Wikipedia, come back in a year or two, and you will be amazed at the improvements.

Horst said on June 9, 2004 08:26 AM:

You are nicely summarizing the problem of Wikipedia:

You do not see how the simple fact that mistakes will eventually disappear alone is not enough to generate knowledge.

This is precisely why some of the content of Wikipedia is so bad: because it is not built on the assumption that information must be correct in the first place, but instead on the assumption that mistakes do not matter because they will eventually be corrected.

Knowledge may emerge only if all articles have run through enough revisions to ensure that they are complete and correct, and providing that nobody is adding more mistakes to them. Otherwise all we have is essentially noise.

And why on earth should I come back in a year? I was criticising the content of Wikipedia *now*, not in a year. Whatever it'll be like next year is inconsequential to me, I want precise, correct information *now*. Like the average Wikipedia user, who is looking up something, expects the information he finds to be correct at the very moment when he looks it up, not a year later.

You are *so* proving my point of the engineer's way of thinking, that a good technical solution outweighs content. Only the real world isn't working like that.

Josh Cogliati said on June 9, 2004 03:45 PM:

Precise, correct information can only be obtained by hard work and in depth research by your self. It isn't in Encyclopedias, and can not be obtained by simple methods. I have spent months trying to determine answers to easily asked questions.
I have watched numerous articles in Wikipedia go from horrible to great, and I have high confidence that articles that people care about will continue to improve. There are thousands of articles that are of high quality, and more are being created everyday. The content demonstrates that the technical process can create great content. To paraphrase, if you like knowledge and sausages do not watch either being made. See you in a year, a decade, a century. I believe Wikipedia will be great, and so do thousands of other people. This vision will create a good encyclopedia, even if it is not up to your standards now.

Horst said on June 16, 2004 10:23 AM:


what exactly is your point? You and other Wikipedia people have said this in previous comments over and over again, even though I never said that these things weren't true.

Repeating them over and over doesn't change my criticism, which was on totally different things.

You remind me of several of our politicians, who aren't responding to journalists' questions any longer — what they are saying is bringing their point across, but their point has nothing to do with the initial question or criticism.

(I'm now closing comments here because this discussion has gone in circles long enough.)

Comments have been closed for this entry.

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