Monday, June 12, 2006

What really makes Wikipedia great

There's been a lot of recent discussion about the Hive Mind and when collectivism is wise. For the Internet-savvy generation, the two best examples of collective wisdom are Google and Wikipedia. I would hope that Google needs no support -- it is by far the best search engine available today. But Wikipedia is frequently criticised for equating the opinions of amateurs -- and not very good amateurs at that -- with the opinions of experts.

But there is a factor which people have not considered. While Google is collectivist, it is opaque -- Google's Page Ranking algorithm is secret. We cannot criticise or test Google's results, only take them as revealed wisdom.

But Wikipedia is the opposite: it is completely transparent. You aren't forced to choose between accepting Wikipedia's articles as revealed wisdom, or rejecting them all together. Instead, you can click on the "discussion" button on each page, and see for yourself the discussions, arguments, disagreements and agreements that led to the article. Where the stakes are high, the wise person will not only read the article, but take into account the article's history and those who wrote it. Was this section written by somebody with an axe to grind? Is this point controversial? Does this authour have the respect of other authors, or is he a loose cannon with an agenda? All that information is publically available in Wikipedia.

In that regard, Wikipedia reminds me of that other great example of collectivism: the scientific consensus. In science and mathematics, it doesn't -- or at least shouldn't -- matter whether you are a self-trained amateur or Mr. Establishment himself: it's what you say, not who you are, that is important. The scientific consensus is completely open and transparent (at least in principle) -- anyone can borrow or subscribe to the appropriate scientific journals and follow the debate between scientists as they nut out a collectivist opinion.

In that regard, I see the greatest feature of Wikipedia is its transparency: unlike other encyclopedias, with Wikipedia you don't have to accept the wisdom of the article on trust, but can see for yourself where it came from.

Previous posts on this subject:
The Hive Mind is stupid and boring -- why do we love it so?
The Hive Mind, part II

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