[joho] JOHO- December 29, 2005

  • From: David Weinberger <dweinberger@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: joho@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sun, 01 Jan 2006 20:55:53 -0500

Journal of the
Hyperlinked Organization
December 29, 2005
Editor: David Weinberger (self@xxxxxxxxxxx)
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   | CONTENTS                                    |
   |                                             |
   | Stuck in their old model, they gets the     |
   | story backwards.                            |
   |                                             |
   | ARE LEAVES MULCH?: Peter Morville's         |
   | criticism of folksonomies, et al.           |
   |                                             |
   | COOL TOOL: Power scanning!                  |
   |                                             |
   | WHAT I'M PLAYING: Murderous rivolity rules. |
   | MERRY WHATEVER                              |
   |                                             |
   | To each a greeting as appropriate. And to   |
   | the atheists, may you enjoy the gift that   |
   | has no giver.                               |
   |                                             |
   | To all of us: A healthy and peaceful new    |
   | year.                                       |


                 Things this piece
                   does NOT say

        1. Wikipedia is always right

        2. Wikipedia will asymptotically achieve a
           point of total rightness

        3. Wikipedia is the only source anyone
           should consult

        4. Wikipedia is impervious to criticism

        5. Wikipedia is better than science, sex,
           and scientific sex

        6. Wikipedia is totally new and there's
           never been anything like it

        7. Anyone who criticizes Wikipedia is a
           doody head

        8. Jimmy Wales is G-d.

When the mainstream media addressed the John Seigenthaler Sr. affair -- he's the respected journalist who wrote an op-ed [1] in USAToday complaining that slanderously wrong information about him was in Wikipedia for four months -- the subtext couldn't be clearer: The media were implicitly contrasting Wikipedia's credibility to their own. Ironically, some of the media got the story fundamentally wrong.

Most media reports presented the narrative line of
the story roughly as follows:

    A person of indisputable honor was smeared in
    Wikipedia. Faced with incontrovertible evidence
    of its failings, the mainstream media shamed
    Wikipedia  into becoming more like them. See,
    Wikipedia was unreliable all along, just like we
    said! We're the grownups, and now we're making
    Wikipedia grow up.

There were lots of little errors of tone. For
example, Robert Lever, writing for the Agençe
France-Presse [2], said:

   In an unusual bit of self-criticism, Wikipedia
   notes on its site that some complain about "a
   perceived lack of reliability, comprehensiveness,
   and authority" in the encyclopaedia.

"Unusual"? Wikipedia has been a continuous state of
self-criticism that newspapers would do well to
emulate. It has discussion pages for every article.
It has handled inaccuracies not defensively but with
the humble understanding that of course Wikipedia
articles will have mistakes, so let's get on with
the unending task of improving them. Wikipedia's
ambitions are immodest, but Wikipedia is not.

And Daniel Terdiman wrote for C-NET [3]:

   The article stayed on Wikipedia - the free, open-
   access encyclopedia - for four months before
   Seigenthaler finally got the service's founder,
   Jimmy Wales, to agree to take it down.

"Finally"? Sounds like Jimmy Wikipedia Wales was
resistant? Nah. I asked Jimmy about this. He was
contacted by Seigenthaler once. Jimmy immediately
removed the previous versions of the article so
people couldn't come upon it by accident. Previous
versions are not indexed by the search engines, but,
Jimmy said, "We do that fairly often as a courtesy
to people, if there's something disparaging to
people in the article." Added Jimmy, Seigenthaler
"didn't request that it be deleted. He seemed to be
surprised that we were willing to do that."

More serious was the report that Wikipedia was
giving up on anonymous editing. For example, The
Guardian's piece [4] came with the headline:

        Wikipedia bans anonymous contributors
                  to prevent libel

The Guardian then had to run a correction:

   Our article below said in error that unregistered
   users are to be prevented from editing pages when
   it is only the creation of new pages that will be
   restricted to registered contributors.

That's right, but the implication, surfaced in the
headline and at the end of the article ("Registering
users could result in court actions"), was wrong.
The point of registering users is not to make it
easier to sue errant Wikipedia contributors. It will
in fact have the opposite effect. Wikipedia tracks
unregistered users' IP addresses -- which, with a
court order, can usually be traced back to a real-
world identity -- because it has no other way of
telling if a slew of trash articles are coming from
a single source. Wikipedia does not track the IP
addresses of registered users because their
pseudonyms serve the same purpose. So requiring
people to log in will make them more anonymous, not
less. But it will enable Wikipedia's reputation
system to operate more effectively on new entries.
And it will cut down on the ~5,000 new entries
created every day, of which about 3,500 are obvious
junk ("Asdfasdf" is a particularly popular entry)
quickly weeded out by the Wikipedians who patrol the

Allowing unregistered users to edit existing
articles plays into that reputation system. Says
Jimmy: "Why do we allow anonymous users to edit
existing articles when we know that the flow of
edits from anonymous users is worse than from
logged-in users? It implicitly self-selects trolls
because we see the IP number but not the login

Jimmy thinks the the mainstream media misunderstood
this story because they have a cognitive problem
when it comes to anonymity and accountability:

   The thing that people always latch onto is that it
   has to do with anonymity. But it doesn't have to
   do with knowing who you are [in the real world] .
   We care about pseudo-identity, not identity. The
   fact that a certain user has a persistent pseudo-
   identity over time allows us to gauge the quality
   of that user without having any idea of who it
   really is.

   Trying to find out who people really are is a
   fool's mission on the Net. You could get a credit
   card ID but that doesn't even tell you very much:
   This is Bob Smith of Missouri. But if an editor
   identifies himself as Zocky [the handle of a
   trusted Wikipedian], I know it's good even though
   I don't know who Zocky is [in the real world]
   because I know Zocky's history on the site. I know
   he's not a spammer, I know he's not making things
   up - at least within the value of "know" that's
   relevant in this case.

Jimmy has been all over the news telling people that
Wikipedia is not yet as reliable as the Britannica,
that students shouldn't cite it, that you should
take every article with a grain of salt. (One
Wikipedian suggested to me that such a disclaimer
ought to be on every page; I agree.) The media are
acting as if this is a humbling confession when in
fact it's been what Jimmy and Wikipedians have been
saying from the first day of this remarkable, and
remarkably successful experiment in building an
inclusive encyclopedia together.

The media literally can't hear that humility, which
reflects accurately the fluid and uneven quality of
Wikipedia. The media - amplifying our general
cultural assumptions - have come to expect knowledge
to be coupled with arrogance (Footnote 1): If you
claim to know X, then you've also been claiming that
you're right and those who disagree are wrong. A
leather-bound, published encyclopedia trades on this
aura of utter rightness (as does a freebie e-
newsletter, albeit it to a lesser degree). The media
have a cognitive problem with a publisher of
knowledge that modestly does not claim perfect
reliability, does not back up that claim through a
chain of credentialed individuals, and that does not
believe the best way to assure the quality of
knowledge is by disciplining individuals for their
failures. Arrogance, individual heroism,
accountability and discipline ... those have been
the hallmarks of the institutions that propagate
knowledge.(Footnote 2)

With Wikipedia, the balance of knowing shifts from
the individual to the social process. The solution
to a failure of knowledge (as the Seigenthaler entry
clearly was) is to fix the social process, while
acknowledging it will never work perfectly. There
are still individuals involved, of course, but
Wikipedia reputations are made and advanced by being
consistent and persistent contributors to the social
process. Yes, persistent violators of the social
trust can be banished from Wikipedia, but the threat
of banishment is not what keeps good contributors
contributing well.

Wikipedia is obviously not the first and only
instance of this type of knowing in our history. But
the balance of heroic individual knowers and
persistent, pseudonymous social processes is
sufficiently different that the media generally have
gone wrong with this story. After all, reporters are
held accountable when they get something wrong, so
why shouldn't Wikipedians?

A: Because Wikipedia isn't a newspaper and newspaper
practices aren't the only way to knowledge.

Is it all good? Nah. But it is. (Footnote 3)

Footnote 1: This is institutional arrogance, not
personal -- an arrogance with which we are
complicit. For example, Simon Winchester, in "The
Meaning of Everything" -- a book I like a lot more
than his more popular "The Professor and the Madman"
-- quotes the preface to the Oxford English
Dictionary, written by the unfathomably learned
James Murray: "Our attempts lay no claim to
perfection; but they represent the most that could
be done in the time and with the data at our
command." (p. 145)

Footnote 2: Science is a complex case in this
regard. Ever since "The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions" we know that science's method operates
within an unstated social context. Wikipedia only
has the social context. Wikipedia would be a bad way
to do science; science is a bad way to write a
neutral encyclopedia article on George Bush.

Footnote 3: Since I am claiming to correct someone
else's report, and since I'm doing so in an article
that talks about the arrogance of knowledge, the
probability approachs 1.0 that this article is
substantially wrong.

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/200511-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm [2] http://massis.lcs.mit.edu/archives/back.issues/recent.single.issues/2005-12-12-03:47.html [3] http://news.com.com/In+search+of+the+Wikipedia+prankster/2008-1029_3-5995977.html [4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1661693,00.html


I'm very fond of Peter Morville's "Ambient
Findability" [1], a highly readable exploration of
what's going on in the field of information
architecture, i.e., how we find stuff, written by a
practitioner and thought-leader.

Larry Irons wrote to me recently, however, asking
about Peter's jibe about the idea that I've been
pushing, that we're moving from trees of knowledge
to big piles of leaves. Peter writes archly that
that's a good metaphor because the leaves rot and
become food for trees (p. 139). Peter then says
about folksonomies:

   They are an amazing tool for trendspotting and for
   revealing desire lines. And as personal bookmark
   tools, they're not bad for keeping found things
   found. But when it comes to findability their
   inability to handle equivalence, hierarchy, and
   other semantic relationships causes them to fail
   miserably at any significant scale. If forced to
   choose between the old and new, I'll take the
   ancient tree of knowledge over the transient
   leaves of popularity any day.

Peter's certainly right about the current state of
leaf-piling. The question is whether we will develop
tools to enable it to scale. For example, the major
tagging sites (Delicious.com, Flickr, Technorati)
already have started clustering tags based on
statistical analyses of their usage. That can lead
to discovering equivalences -- loose at first but
getting tighter and tighter. Folksonomies result in
controlled vocabularies that users violate at the
expense of findability. Hierarchy can be deduced
from tag clusters, although they are unlikely to be
as neat as traditional ones...but that makes up a
deficiency in traditional hierarchies.

 From my point of view, the turn to leaf piles
absolutely does not rule out traditional ways of
organizing information. Rather, it allows multiple
ways of organizing. If an "ancient tree" works, it
can and will be used as one path through the leaves.
In most cases, though, there will be multiple paths,
sometimes deliriously many. That seems to me
inevitable in almost every case.

I believe we will turn from single trees to piles of
leaves because indefinite potential necessarily has
more value than any single actualization.

[1] http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/ambient/

+---------------------------------------------+ | COOL TOOL | | | | I am getting such a kick out of having a | | printer/scanner/fax machine with an | | automatic paper feeder. I've been using my | | new Canon MP780 - about $200 - to convert | | old papers into new scans. For example, I | | found a paper from my academic career that | | I couldn't get published, so, whoosh, I | | scanned it in and posted it. And one on | | John Austin that was published in 1984. | | | | I wonder how many pages I'll feed through | | until it breaks? | | Austin: | http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/mtarchive/austins_flying_arrow.html | Phenomenological ethics: | http://www.hyperorg.com/misc/philscans/phenomenologicalethics.pdf +---------------------------------------------+ | WHAT I'M PLAYING | | | | I finished Serious Sam 2, which was tons | | of fun if you like being overwhelmed by | | wave after wave of cartoon enemies as much | | as I do. Now I'm playing Brothers in Arms: | | Earned in Blood, in which you control a | | squad while playing in first person | | perspective as a member of the squad. You | | succeed by tactically outsmarting (= | | outflanking) the Germans. It's a little | | slow for me, and it'd be a lot more fun if | | it allowed arbitrary save points instead | | of sending you back to the beginning of | | the engagement every time you die (= | | constantly). Why do game designers think | | we want to replay their levels until we | | get them right? Sheesh. | +---------------------------------------------+

And to all, a good night...


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  • » [joho] JOHO- December 29, 2005