Monday, February 27, 2006

Tech: It's a Wiki World

In 1994, if I expected the internet to answer all my questions, I’d be in for a long wait. And I was. I expected Encyclopaedia Britannica to be online, and it wasn’t. I was idealising what I expected the internet could and should be. I still do, but I accept that these things take time.
In 1994, I found search engines didn’t do all that much for me. Then a new one, Alta Vista, changed my mind. Then of course Google, and it stops there. Google is still not ideal, but nothing comes close for general search engines.
Content is king. And nothing beats Wikipedia. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has some cachet, but it’s impossible for it to be either comprehensive or timely. On those fronts, Wikipedia is way ahead of any other site.
Anyone adds content to Wikipedia, anytime. It gets checked, chucked, disputed, discussed as necessary, and something gets worked out. It’s a weird paradigm, and one that took me a while to trust. But it works, and it was more thorough and up to date than anything else I could find. I believe this is because it has reached a critical mass: there’s enough people that care about the correctness of facts. And below the surface, there’s a set of procedures that ensures that scurrilous content gets fixed quickly by other people who notice the changes. I saw this in action early this year, where there was an outlandish entry on top of the Financial Times rich list. I checked the FT for the correct info, then checked Wiki a couple of hours later - already fixed.
Another example: A biography of one-time New Zealand Prime Minister Wallace Rowling claimed that he was related to author JK Rowling. Untrue, because NZ Rowling’s forebears changed their spelling from Rawlings upon migrating to NZ. This I knew simply because I had some genealogical information. I changed the entry, and nobody has disputed it.
Evidently, Wiki can be prone to incorrections at the lower level. But I would contend that so are all encyclopaedias, yet others don’t have the benefit of such a mass of contributors who care about getting facts right.
So, on a very detailed level, there can still be some issue about the accuracy of a wiki, but the broader you go, the broader the audience and the more accurate it will be. The FT episode suggests to me that it's quite hard to do major vandalism that lasts for any length of time. This has been borne out by statistical analyses of Wikipedia. Conversely, at any given time you can expect a certain number of malicious changes to be in place. But as a proportion of the size of Wikipedia, I doubt it's significant. Repeat vandals get barred from contributing.

I don’t expect this paradigm to be effective unless there is a critical mass. But there are uses for a Wiki in a corporate setting. I had an online discussion with Luis Suarez, and we converged on agreement that a Wiki can be quite useful in a project setting, where there's a group of people who are focused on the task, and care about the documentation (and/or data). Would it be reliable as a complete replacement for an organisation’s corporate documentation? I didn’t think so at first, but I have less doubts right at the moment. It can work if entries are fitted into a coherent corporate structure, and if each entry is the responsibility of somebody in an ongoing sense. Simplest if someone is notified whenever something changes that they’re responsible for. But outside that, let people add content. To avoid vandalism, enforce signatures. Sounds good, what do you think?

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