Friday, 8 March 2013

Let's Hear It For Wikipedia

One of the causes I support financially, from time to time, is Wikipedia.  In the contemporary Dictionary of Received Ideas*, the entry under "Wikipedia" would read, "Scoff at its inaccuracy; refer to well-known examples of biographical inexactitude.  Nevertheless, use it constantly".

Having worked as an "information professional" since the days of print-only reference sources -- which were updated annually at most, and far less frequently, if ever, in most cases -- I know a thing or two about the problems involved in "looking stuff up" (sorry to use such a technical term).  Frankly, people who are sniffy about Wikipedia have no idea what they are talking about.  These are same spoiled e-brats who expect cameras that deliver perfect, grain-free images at ISO 64000.

Errors?  Of course there are errors!  You think there are no errors in printed reference sources?**  Have you never seen an "errata" page, slipped shame-facedly somewhere inside an "authoritative" source like a dictionary? Have you any idea how long you would have to wait to see a corrected edition of, say, a monumental encyclopaedia of film, which turns out to be riddled with proofreading errors?  Reference work is like the X-Files: trust no-one.

The amazing thing about Wikipedia is not how bad it is, but how good it is, given the "wiki" model.  It's evidence for the efficacy of that counter-intuitive but very contemporary phenomenon, crowd-sourcing; or, to use the more contentious label, the wisdom of crowds. Lots of people who know a little can, collaboratively, outweigh one person who knows a lot, it seems.

Or so the theory goes:  how this would have worked out in, say, the case of Galileo is fairly clear.  Luckily, burning at the stake is no longer an option.  As Flaubert's Dictionnaire des idées reçues has it:
ORIGINALITY: Jeer at it, you will be thought a most superior person.  Express scorn and hatred for all forms of originality;exterminate it if you can.
For a counter-balancing example of the witlessness of crowds, check out the Zeitgeist Statistics of crowd-sourced book cataloguing project LibraryThing.  Apparently, these are the Top Ten authors with at least 50 ratings:
Don Wood (5), Luigi Serafini (4.76), William M. Gaines (4.75), The Kyoto Costume Institute (4.75), Janet Arnold (4.74), Rudolf Kittel (4.71), Arthur G. Bennett (4.68), Ollie Johnston (4.67), R.C. Sproul (4.67), William Little (4.66)
Huh?  Who? A little investigation reveals that Mad Magazine still has a big following, historical fashionistas are big readers, and Christians may not be above a little ballot-stuffing.  Amusingly, down there with the 50 lowest-rated authors (all with nul points) are Ian Rankin, Arnold Bennett, Pierre Corneille (no argument there), William McIlvanney, and somebody called Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (gotta be made-up, that one).

An example.  Recently, I came across the evocative expression "tide diamonds".  I had no idea what it meant, other than it probably had nothing to do with walking on the beach to see what fresh bounty the sea had washed up overnight.  Before the Web, well, where would you start?  The dictionary is no help at all. Nowadays, obviously, straight to Wikipedia.  So that's what a tide diamond is!  What a wonderful (and, to a land-lubber, perfectly useless) thing to know.

So, the next time an appeal for cash from Jimmy Wales pops up on Wikipedia, why not cough up a tenner?  It's a damn sight cheaper than a set of encyclopaedias.  And, as a supporter, you even get to wear a Wikipedia button badge, if so inclined.

*  If you don't know it, this was one of Flaubert's better ideas, never completed.

**  Some errors are deliberate.  Known as "mountweazels" or "ghost words", they are inserted into dictionaries and encyclopaedias as traps for copyright thieves.  One of my colleagues at Bristol University library, prankster Paul Woods, whose death I was saddened to hear of recently, was in the habit of inserting ghost entries into the catalogue there.  The most notorious one may still exist (if the card catalogue still exists):  look up "Polar Bear" should you ever be in the library.


Zouk Delors said...

Yeah! Who needs librarians these days anyway?! Google it, dude!

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Oh, OK, .... I'll donate, ... sigh.

Dave Leeke said...

Hear! Hear! I totally agree. I use it a lot and tell students to use it too. Foe instant access to information, it's brilliant.

I guess I'll have to cough up too . . .

Dave Leeke said...

. . . for, obviously.

Zouk Delors said...

Gasp! Er... Mike... this is your opportunity to explain just how valuable librarians still are. It's been two days now.

Found this on Wiki recently:

On June 4th 1769, Aaron Swift wrote in his diary:

"A lot o' folks loiks ta knack the Spinning Jenny. As a spinner moiself, oi knows a thing or two about spinning, an what surproises me is how good it actually is."

It's not there any more, so I guess Jimbo must have invoked the "rapid delete procedure".

If I send you some money, can I get an Idiotic Hat badge to wear? Or better still, an idiotic hat?

Mike C. said...


I assumed that was a ironic comment that didn't warrant a response.

Google and Wikipedia are very different enterprises, but Google, if anything, only serves to underline the usefulness of skills in metadata creation and the evaluation of resources. Perhaps you, like most people, think it works by magic.

No profession is secure in the current environment, but I was lucky to choose one that is very attuned to the digital age. Though it's true that those of you restricted to the use of public libraries aren't seeing much of the benefit.


Zouk Delors said...

those of you restricted to the use of public libraries aren't seeing much of the benefit.

Personally I'm not seeing any at all - I'm barred, remember?

zythophile said...

Any information resource that references works by me is ... er ... well, not that bad, I suppose.

What hacks ME off about Wikipedia is that at least six of my fellow British beer writers have their own entries, and yet I don't. Don't they know how important I am? ("Yes" is probably the answer ...)

Martyn Cornell

Mike C. said...


I'm not a contributor, so I don't know what the rules are, but I'm sure a Wiki page on you and/or your publications would be more than justifiable. Why not check it out?