March 16, 2009

A reply to "Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter"

Vipul Naik wrote a blog post "Wikipedia criticism, and why it fails to matter" (and follow-up) where he discussed many critics of Wikipedia, and raised a question:

Does criticism of Wikipedia serve any purpose (constructive or destructive) other than being an excuse to fill journal columns and blog space (I might note that the critical articles I wrote about Wikipedia have driven the most traffic to my blog)? it is hard to say. I want to argue here that it does not at least serve the obvious purpose of keeping potential readers away from Wikipedia.

For my reply, let me put it this way:
Part of my motivation has been the delusion that I can make a (small) difference in the world. But I am not nearly so deluded as to think I can significantly keep potential readers away from Wikipedia. Indeed, as I repeatedly try to point out that Wikipedia's success has been driven by an implicit subsidy by Google (implicit meaning there's no deal, no specific arrangement, but rather an effect overall), it logically follows my ability to compete with that is, in practice, nil.

I started critiquing Wikipedia in self-defense, since my biography there was being used as a weapon in a longstanding harassment campaign. And then the more I looked into the real inner workings of Wikipedia, the worse it seemed. I suspect many people don't understand the frame of reference I try to convey, of cults where idealistic unpaid acolytes work themselves to burn-out, while a few people at the top benefit enormously.

But I have no grandiose views about my readership and influence. At best, I'd aim to affect things like Jonathan Zittrain's use of Wikipedia in his book - i.e. some intellectuals might read me, and as a result the hype would be less extensive, maybe even debunked a little. Realistically, that's the best I can hope for (and I likely won't achieve even that much).

That is, I'm not trying to change (directly) the number of Wikipedia editors, but rather the Public Intellectual perspective on Wikipedia.

To me, structurally, Wikipedia embodies many policy trends which I find immoral and destructive - e.g. the shifting of risk and responsibility from institutions onto relatively powerless individuals, while simultaneously shifting personal benefits to a tiny elite. I know, that's not the way we're told (often by PR flacks) to think about it. But how many $50,000 - $100,000 ? - speaker's fee gigs do the article writers get?

Perhaps it's futile to criticize all that. It's certainly not lucrative. Maybe I've made the same mistake that I made during the Great Bubble, of not getting on the gravy train while the getting was good. I suppose it all comes down to the question of which side you're on, and why you're on it.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in wikipedia | on March 16, 2009 06:09 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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> But how many $50,000 - $100,000 ? - speaker's
> fee gigs do the article writers get?

Wikipedia is a free source of knowledge and I find the deal works like this: you edit a little (or don't, it's totally up to you), and in return, you get a wealth of knowledge totally free. And if you only add bits and pieces here and there, why *should* you get 50,000 bucks or so? That is the kind of amount one may get for a full-time job, not for a bit of editing here and there. And I suspect many of the people who edit here and there may have a full-time job, where they earn money. Put reversely, your argument could also be: "How come those people who have a full-time job and *get paid* there at their job... also get to access the wealth of information that is Wikipedia *for free*?" And you may also say, "Whoever never edits at Wikipedia should also not get access to the articles for free! You should only get free access to articles you co-edited substantially, otherwise you need to pay!"

Posted by: Philipp Lenssen at March 16, 2009 06:44 AM

I believe that people that work themselves to death on wikipedia have no one to blame but themselves. Have a little self restraint. The world isn't going to end if you do not perfect that wikipedia page.

Posted by: Custom Promotional Products at March 16, 2009 09:31 AM

It works like the cult of Linux, in which Torvalds takes devotees to Linustown and feeds them OSI-certified Kool-Aid.

Posted by: David Gerard at March 16, 2009 10:41 AM

Philipp Lenssen: Quite a few people do the equivalent of a full-time job, or even more. The site is run overall by a small core of participants who devote a huge amount of unpaid time, sometimes to their personal detriment. The human cost bothers me.

David Gerard: In fact, people often do get paid for working on Linux. And if not paid directly, there are strong traditions of credit in open source projects where contributors can use their work as a basis for future paying work. Wikipedia is crucially not like open source projects in that way.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 16, 2009 11:16 AM

Hi Seth,

Nice to see you respond to my post (or rather, to one of the contentions in it).

Side note: As a even-more-of-a-non-entity blogger than you, I expect to see a traffic spike from your link.



Posted by: Vipul Naik at March 16, 2009 03:59 PM

The fact that Wikipedia, Inc. does not respond to criticism is one of the most telling facts about it.

And no, banning and defaming critics is not what normal people mean by "responding".

Posted by: Jon Awbrey at March 17, 2009 08:35 AM

Wikipedia criticism won't shut them down. It still matters if it leads to improvements in the editing process, for example when dealing with the potential to abuse Wikipedia as a defamation machine.

Posted by: Karl-Friedrich Lenz at March 17, 2009 07:16 PM

Seth,I don't know who would be getting $50,000.00-
$100,000.00 speaker fees from being listed in Wikipedia. while looking for some high school friends I keyed one of their names into Google, which took me to Wikipedia and sure enough I am in it ( under The Human Expression ) I never had a clue I was listed in it and have yet to get any offers to speak even in the $0.50 - $1.00 range. but I AM AVAIABLE FOR ANY WELL PAYING SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS !
Tom Hamilton

Posted by: Recording Studio - Tom Hamilton at March 19, 2009 12:04 PM