On “Wikiality”

By now, you have seen Stephen Cobert’s piece on Wikiality. If you haven’t, watch it before you read on.

In this response to the piece, Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post takes an interesting angle on how and why Wikipedia works:

But if Wikipedia is going to exist as an open-source resource and is going to resist single-peer review for its entries, then it needs to be transparent, as it has been in l’affaire Colbert. If Wikipedia’s DNA prevents it from hosting a single standard for truth — or truthiness — then its sources of information need to be evident and their tracks easily seen so readers can have as many facts as possible to determine their accuracy.

It’s on Wikipedia, So It Must Be True

So, I have two concerns with this line of thinking. First, it assumes that Wikipedia is meant to be a definitive source on anything and I think that argument was over with the Nature piece comparing Britannica to Wikipedia. (To his credit, Ahrens makes this point clear — and takes a jab at himself ” at the end of the article and suggests that “Not, of course, that anyone would or should use Wikipedia — or really, anything else besides this column — as a single and authoritative source on any topic.”)

Second, and more importantly, I think that Cobert understands the inner workings of Wikipedia, the idea that it does, indeed, try to agree on facts. It is called the Neutral Point of View. And, despite take-offs like Colbert’s and The Onion’s, I think that many people who criticize Wikipedia — and similar projects — forget that it is not about the facts, per se, but one’s ability to contribute to a group’s understanding of the facts.

On The Media did an excellent piece on this issue about a year ago, right after the London bombings and when Wikipedia was the most accurate news source. It was, indeed, the power of the people to collaborate that made it a great site… Lest we lose site of that in our culture’s furor to constantly seek a single truth. Wikipedia has its own form of peer review and, for what Wikipedia is and wants to be, it works perfectly. And that is why Colbert’s idea of wikiality is so funny… because the idea itself just isn’t true.

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