June 30, 2007

The Worst of the Web: Punditry 2.0

Category: Academic,Tech,Wikipedia — Biella @ 6:04 pm

Tonight, instead of minding my dinner, which did burn, I was drawn into and extended a pretty fiery IRC conversation on debian-devel on a topic that does not like to die: the merits and demerits of Wikipedia.

It is not worth summarizing the conversation here for it followed a pretty predictable arc. There were those who thought Wikipedia was novel and valuable, others who saw it as a pit of bad facts, and inaccuracies and a few others who saw it in ways negative and positive. I found the conversation somewhat ironic, because I usually find myself defending free software to outsiders much in the same way I was defending Wikipedia to free software developers.

I tend to be in the camp of admirers, and for many reasons, although, of course, I also was arguing that it is too early to judge the value of Wikipedia as it is in its infancy. Like Debian, since Wikipedia is an institution that has changed *a lot* in its short history, it is hard to make any hard and fast conclusions about its worth, impact, etc, although more modest and qualified claims are certainly in order.

The only reason I feel like I can argue anything about Wikipedia is because I am currently reading a dissertation on Wikipedia by Joseph Reagle. He not only has really insightful things to say about the collaborative culture driving the online encyclopedia, but also about the prolific commentary that has closely followed the heels of Wikipedia in the last few years.

Just today, he wrote a blog entry entitled, Punditry and The Web 2.0 debate, which so hit the nail on the head on the problems–not with Wikipedia–but with the peanut gallery (commentary) on Wikipedia.

As he notes, the problem is often not with the so called correct or incorrect judgments on Wikipedia (or other Web 2.0 phenomenon) but with the very debates themselves, because many of them are built on a shaky foundation of sand, but this punditry, as Joe rightly calls it, is nonetheless worthy of critical examination:

.. while I follow the discussion with interest, I actually don’t find it substantively engaging. Many of the arguments, particularly Gorman’s, tend to be characterized by unsubstantiated claims and the purposeful construal of nuanced issues as extremes — propping up strawmen for subsequent potshots. As I’ve already indicated, while it might bring pundits a sense of righteousness and attention, in the end “Time, not arguments, will utlimately tell.” (And, for this reason I appreciate Larry Sanger’s continuing efforts to implement his vision.)Why, then, do I find this discussion of interest? Punditry, communicative disorders, and history. First, I’m trying to come to an understanding of “punditry,” and I think Gorman’s recent bloggings is an exemplar. My sense is that sometimes people argue for arguments’ sake. That is, even if they genuinely believe the thing they are arguing for, attention, not persuasion, is the goal. (In a sense, perhaps it is a high-brow, and perhaps more genuinely held, form of trolling — another interesting phenomenon.)

While punditry has always existed, there is no doubt that the Internet has accentuated and facilitated this form of (often male) communication and it is great to see someone tackle this topic. Because let’s face it, there is a lot more “garbage” spewing from Web 2.0 or Wikipedia commentary compared to than the actual Wikipedia articles themselves.


  1. Does the quote really include “utlimately”?

    Wikipedia pages often contain errors in such easily-checkable things as geography (today I saw an article describe the Washford transmitter as “near Clevedon”, for example) so how can anyone trust anything it says? It’s an interesting prose link directory, but not an encyclopedia yet.

    Comment by MJ Ray — June 30, 2007 @ 6:53 pm

  2. I thought ‘utlimately’ was the English (read: British) spelling of ultimately. Kinda like fourest and labouratory or aluminoleum.

    Comment by Adam K — June 30, 2007 @ 8:36 pm

  3. Wikipedia uses social software. It has a community around it like any FLOSS project. People who become active can end up being like DD who claim a fiefdom on a package and guard pages from edits they dont like. This discourages others from contributing like in Debian. There can be revision wars on WP, something that does happen on the BTS but on the BTS its a smaller and more controlled scale. Getting correct info on WP is not as quick and easy as the word ‘wiki’ implies. This is a result of the community that has built around WP with politics and favoritism. It started in 2001 and has grown in pages and people. But it has issues that need to be addressed. I hope they find a way forward that accomplishes this.

    Comment by Kevin Mark — June 30, 2007 @ 8:55 pm

  4. MJ Ray,

    Yes it does say ultimately and in terms of your other concerns, well I think Kevin already gave the ideal answer. Perfection is not there (though I don’t ever think it was there in older reference works) but at least 1) they have mechanisms to try to fix problems 2) you can cross check via sources they themselves cite 3) see back history via talk pages.

    And let’s remember an encyclopedia is not there to replace more sustained research. It is a place to start and frankly for me, the most valuable part of Wikipedia is the enormous number of (odd) references that are in there. This is just not possible in a treeware version. And if you learn something and it captures your fancy, then, indeed, you should go beyond Wikipedia. It is a starting point, not end point and functions well enough in this regard.

    Comment by Biella — July 1, 2007 @ 6:37 am

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