Wednesday, December 14, 2005

What's Wrong with Wikipedia?

Robert McHenry, a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Britannica, tries to explain the source of Wikipedia's flaws:
Many revisions, corrections, and updates are badly done or false. There is a simple reason for this: Not everyone who believes he knows something about Topic X actually does; and not everyone who believes he can explain Topic X clearly, can. People who believe things that are not the case are no less confident in their beliefs than those who happen to believe true things. (In case this point interests you, I have written extensively on it.) Consequently, it is far more reasonable to expect that, while initially poor articles may indeed improve over time, initially superior ones will degrade, with all tending to middling quality and subject to random fluctuations in quality. Note that this has nothing to do with the vandalism or the ideological “revert wars” that are also features of Wikipedia’s insistence on openness and that apparently occupy much of the volunteer editors’ time and effort.
But McHenry omits the key explanatory variable. Wikipedia is not subject to the usual discipline of the market:
  • Wikipedia is a hobby-shop, not a business. Its "owners" (volunteer Wikiwatchers) are not interested in making a profit. Even if relatively few persons used Wikipedia, the volunteers (or most of them) probably would continue to volunteer because they enjoy doing so -- just as millions of volunteers perform ineptly for non-profit organizations and millions of bloggers maintain obscure, incoherent blogs. Wikipedia's owners have no pecuniary stake in it.
  • Because Wikipedia is a hobby-shop, contributors to Wikipedia are not screened by an expert editorial board that solicits paid contributions from credentialed sources. Wikipedia's contributors are essentially bloggers who have found another outlet for expression -- they have no pecuniary stake in the quality of their contributions.
  • The users of Wikipedia do not pay to use it, either directly or indirectly (by clicking through to advertisers). Wikipedia is used mainly because it is free. It is used mainly by bloggers who do not "re-sell" Wikipedia's content and, therefore, have no pecuniary stake in the quality of Wikipedia's content. Therefore, unlike the buyers of a defective product who take their business elsewhere, Wikipedia's users have no effective way to discipline Wikipedia for its failings.
In sum, you get what you pay for when you use Wikipedia. That said, it's still very often a useful source of basic facts and links to (sometimes) authoritative sources.