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Archive for March, 2010

In 1962, Charles Van Doren, who later became a senior editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, said “The ideal encyclopedia should be radical. It should stop being safe.”

Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia), explains that Wikipedia indeed began with the following radical idea: “imagine a world in which every person on the planet is giving free access to the sum of human knowledge.”  The goal of the Wikimedia Foundation is to get a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet. Wales wants to empower people everywhere to make good decisions that can fight evils like poverty. So far, Wikipedia is doing a pretty good job reaching out to people across the globe- only 1/3 of the site’s traffic is to its English language version.  Can you believe that a global site used millions of times per day only costs the Wikimedia Foundation a few thousand dollars per month? Can you believe that all of Wikipedia’s system administrators and editors are volunteers? And ultimately, can you believe what you read on Wikipedia?

First of all, let’s consider who is using Wikipedia and why they like it. Since Wikipedia is especially popular amongst the college-aged, well-educated population looking for a convenient place to get information (example: ME), I’m going to draw from my own daily experiences. I mostly use Wikipedia as a quick reference (I glance at the first paragraph and then skim a few sections of the article) or a jumping off point/roadmap for further, more in-depth online research on a topic. Isn’t this the same way that you would use a published encyclopedia? You don’t expect to be an expert after simply reading an encyclopedia article, but you do feel more prepared to continue your research and connect the dots between sources that zero in on particular aspects of your topic. Today, this aerial view is free and at our fingertips (both literally and figuratively.) Sure, Wikipedia is not perfect (with every plausible promise and effective tool comes that acceptable bargain), but in trusting what you read in its articles, you are surely gain more than you lose.

The popularity of Wikipedia proves the power of peer production as an industrial model. Wikipedia champions the idea that amateurs can have as much to contribute as professionals. Who cares if an editor doesn’t have his or her Master’s degree in a relevant field? If someone is passionate enough to contribute to the knowledge surrounding a certain topic, then it is highly likely that that person will strive to be a reliable source. And even when this logic doesn’t hold true, there are enough passionate, reliable experts who can edit misinformation out.

And when all else fails, we have Wales, who realizes that we rely on Wikipedia is as a trusted, convenient source of information. It’s comforting to know that he is willing to curb Wikipedia’s open-door policy to meet our high standards of content quality. “We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information. There is a serious responsibility we have,” says Wales. Clearly, Wikipedia’s new flagging system reflects the recognition of that responsibility that comes with Wikipedia’s exceptional influence on information-seekers. From the beginning, Wales has avoided specifying principles for Wikipedia. Instead, he prefers that it’s rules evolve in response to real users’ needs. Overly broad principles, like “blogs are not valid sources,” would take away from knowledge summation and information sharing, since many blogs can provide editors with information worthy of being aggregated into Wikipedia articles. How can Wales separate the articles that are actually encyclopedic from the ones which aren’t (example: obscure celebrities.) The Long Tail tells us that in fact every niche (and article) has its followers.  Unlike published encyclopedias, Wikipedia is not paper. Its editors are not constrained by special limits. It’s okay for them to write about every topic imaginable. Wikipedia is one of those distributive forces that make the Long Tail possible!

Maybe Wikipedia is even becoming wary of untrustworthy sources on its own.  Ed Chi found that the changes made by experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there is “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content, especially when edits come from occasional editors.” I don’t think this is a bad trend. If you are one of those passionate people (mentioned above) who want to contribute to the public’s knowledge, then you will be willing to prove yourself before being accepted. Sure, you don’t need a Master’s degree, but you do need to build some sort of credibility before becoming an influencer.

As further proof of the validity of Wikipedia, check out Nature’s expert-led investigation, which used peer reviews to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science. The study’s results suggest that high-profile, vandalism scandals (like the Seigenthaler situation) are the “exception rather than the rule.” Other users have put Wikipedia’s trustworthiness to their own tests and come up with less positive results. This is not all that surprising. Of course Wikipedia is more susceptible to inaccuracies and bias then traditional published encyclopedias. But just as someone researching the war in Iraq would not want to rely solely on published encyclopedia articles, he or she would not want to assume the validity and the accuracy of every fact in Wikipedia’s 33-page “War in Iraq” article. Look for flags, check the source of your Wikipedia information, and verify facts with other sources! In a day and age when it is possible to surround ourselves with the news that we want, we should never believe everything that we see.

Check out this great article on why Wikipedia should be trusted as a breaking news source as well as an encyclopedia. I totally agree that Wikipedia is too often held to higher standards than traditional media. Like this article says, Wikipedia is an aggregator of all the social media news sources that we check (and believe) on a daily basis.  If we believe one article posted on a friend’s Twitter feed, why wouldn’t we trust an aggregation of articles that take multiple perspectives on a news event?

And finally, an afterthought: Why is it that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women? Why are men dominating this landscape so much? In class, we discussed that blogging is also a male-dominated landscape (aside from Mommy Blogs.) Blogging seems more opinion-oriented, while contributing to Wikipedia involves having confidence in your knowledge and its value. Could it be that women don’t think their own opinions and knowledge are worth sharing? The psychology side of me can’t help but ponder the underlying gender issues in these statistics.

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I am not much of a “gamer” myself, and I had actually never thought of “gaming” as part of social media until I saw our class syllabus. I tried to activate a Second Life account, but the site would not accept any of my three working email addresses as valid. I quickly became frustrated with this problem and decided to browse the Second Life Destination Guide instead. I was shocked by how beautiful the Second Life world is. Parts of it reminded me of Universal Studios- especially when I saw that there are “Alice and Wonderland” destinations. After checking out several of these visually enchanting lands and builds, I actually see how people might become caught up in this world. I don’t see Second World continuing to grow. It looks like many companies are already pulling the plug on their marketing efforts in this second world. Second Life reminds me of Twitter in the sense that millions of people have activated accounts, but only a much smaller, core group of users exist.

While I was previously aware of Second Life and World of Warcraft, I had no idea that political and policy-related videogames existed until I browsed Persuasive Game’s portfolio. Games produced by this agency have addressed food safety and agribusiness, consumerism, personal debt, the global petroleum market, pandemic flu, wind energy, and even the politics of nutrition, which was big in the news last week. So, I downloaded and started to play FatWorld. Quickly, I realized how time consuming these games can be. I have a hard enough time staying current with the happenings in my own life and the physical world- who has time to play another person in a fictitious alternate universe? Not only do you have to learn the rules of the game- you also have to continuously play the game to develop your values and explore models demonstrated by the games. The graphics are also far simpler in these games than in Second World, although the issues addressed are much more complex.

Ian Bogost, author of Persuasive Games and founder of the agency by the same name, recently wrote an article highlighting the “unique power and potential of videogames to complexify rather than simplify the world.” He goes onto explain that “Games, like all media, can’t ever really change behavior; a game about nutrition won’t magically turn a player healthy, just as a game about criminality won’t magically turn a player delinquent…Instead, games can help us shape and explore our values. And today, our values better damned well be complex.” And complex values take constant care to develop and nurture. It seems like these games are actually for policy makers, whose lives revolve around exploring and understanding the complex values associated with their respective issues.

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John Battelle’s The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed our Culture really opened my eyes to Google as a business enterprise. I feel a little silly and a lot naïve, but I had really always thought of Google as the world’s information providing service to the world rather than a business with a bottom line. I have grown up making sense of the web throuh “Googling.” I am reliant on this search engine to the degree that I automatically type www.google.com into my internet browser’s address upon opening the internet, even if I am just using it to navigate to a familiar webpage.  Sure, I was aware that the Google model relied on making money through AdWords and AdSense, but I had never thought of Google solely as a money-making endeavor. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the company.

Google’s “promise” is plausible: to organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable and useful.” But did you know that the “effective tool” keeps changing? I’m not convinced that Google algorithms change overnight to benefit the public, but I am certain that changes like the Florida update help Google’s bottom line. In Chapter 7, Battelle tells the story of online small business entrepreneurs who were profiting from Google search results in an honest way. Without warning or prior explanation, Google introduced a new algorithm that turned search results upside-down and forced these small businesses to buy AdWords to move back up the search ladder.

Did you know that the “acceptable bargain,” or the rules of Google, might not be so transparent? Google initially agreed to an extremely low level of censorship in China so that it could enter the valuable market. This decision blatantly broke Google’s original promise. Google rationalized this compromise by saying that it would ultimately be more of a disservice to the Chinese people to live without Google altogether. Four years later, Google has suddenly decided that censorship is not in line with its company’s values, and it plans on pulling out of China after a series of security breaches. Google doesn’t explain how the security breaches have changed their opinions on censorship, but apparently they have. Or is this just a way for Google to rebuild integrity while abandoning an investment gone-bad?  While I do not personally have anything to hide, I’m not as comfortable with Google’s influence on my life and possession of my personal information now that I recognize what appear to be Google’s ulterior (or at least conflicting) motives.

On a final note, my internet is working fine, but my Google has suddenly stopped working as I write this post. Is Big Brother watching? No, I don’t think so. I’m not afraid of Google, but I’m glad that I’m now aware (thanks to Battelle) of the company’s questionable integrity.

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Another thing you need to know about me: I am a pet lover. Dogs and cats are my real weakness, but I have gone so far as to rescue a pet rat from cruel treatment by its frat boy “owners.” Setting out to write this post, I planned on discussing several current issues amongst pet rescuers. But once I put my fingers to the keyboard, I could only think of the start of my family’s pet obsession.

I am in fact my parents first “human” born, but they still refer to Alfalfa (Al), our late, beloved chocolate lab, as their first child. Al was Dad’s wedding present to Mom. Dad was working crazy hours at the hospital while finishing his residency at MUSC, so Mom was often lonely (and a little spooked) in their not-so-safe Charleston neighborhood. Al was meant to be Mom’s companion and watch dog, but he quickly became an integrated member of their young family and was nurtured accordingly. I was a picky eater, and so was Al. I was always impressed to look over at his dog bowl after dinner and see only green peas- how did he manage to spit each one out as he ate? My baby brother Taylor also aspired to be like Al, much to Mom’s embarrassment. It took her quite some time to train Taylor go to the bathroom in the toilet rather than outside on the trees. Growing up, Taylor and I sure thought our hairy, four-legged, drooling older brother was cool (and normal); as we got older, we were surprised to slowly realize that not every kid had one. How’d we get so lucky?

Today my parents still joke that Al was the “Ten Thousand Dollar Asshole” because they spent almost that much money removing cancerous tumors from his anus. They will tell you that it was worth every penny to keep Al around a little bit longer. In his last days, Al was too weak to stand, eat, or drink. I vividly remember Dad lying next to him on the floor, holding orange popsicles for him to lick. He would only eat the orange ones. At ten years old, that was the first time I saw my Dad cry. Al was cremated, and in the following years, my parents spread his ashes over his favorite spots, like around our dock, off our boat in the bay, and on my grandparents’ farm. A framed, poster-size picture of Al still hangs in Dad’s office, and Al’s orange collar still hangs over the corner of the frame.

If you don’t understand this post, I suggest you go rent Marley and Me. When this movie came out, we had a very old yellow lab that sincerely resembled “old Marley,” so my parents warned me that it might be too upsetting to watch. This past fall, I finally rented the movie, and it brought me to wonderful, happy tears. I finally understood how my parents had become so connected to Al- the story was laid out on screen for me. It is so beautiful that pets can become so ingrained in our lives for what later seems like too short of a time. If you take time to love and train your dog, then your dog will put 110% into loving and training you. Isn’t it great (and easy) to love someone who thinks the sun rises and sets around you?

“A dog has no use for fancy cars or big homes or designer clothes. Status symbol means nothing to him. A waterlogged stick will do just fine. A dog judges others not by their color or creed or class but by who they are inside. A dog doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his. It was really quite simple, and yet we humans, so much wiser and more sophisticated, have always had trouble figuring out what really counts and what does not. As I wrote that farewell column to Marley, I realized it was all right there in front of us, if only we opened our eyes. Sometimes it took a dog with bad breath, worse manners, and pure intentions to help us see.”
— John Grogan

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I first became acquainted with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) during my junior year of college in an abnormal psych class. As part of our curriculum, we read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This novel, written in the first-person perspective of a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome, really struck a chord with me. I became fascinated by individuals and families affected by ASD. Perhaps it was because I prided myself on my superior communication skills and love of loving, and couldn’t imagine living with ASD.  Perhaps it was because I was a psychology major, and ASD was beginning to appear in the headlines of news and the plots of books and movies rather frequently (1 in 100 children in the U.S. are affected.) Regardless of my reason, I began to “follow” autism. I haven’t made a career out of this interest, although I sometimes think my dream job is in the communications department of an organization that raises awareness for ASD. Instead, I simply find it very easy to become engrossed in an Aspergian’s memoir (John Robison’s Look Me in the Eye) or the blog of a parent with an autistic child.

If you’re not very familiar with ASD, the Autism” Wikipedia page as well as the Autism Society of America and Autism Speaks’ home pages provide basic information about diagnostic criteria and psychological profiles. From there, I recommend diving into blogs. Reading non-fiction really is the best way to learn. While there are a finite number of memoirs to purchase on Amazon.com, individuals touched by autism are posting on personal blogs every single day! Sites like The Autism Hub provide links to blogs about autism from autistic people, family members, and students/professionals. Left Brain/Right Brain is another well-known autism blog focused on news, science, and opinion related to ASD. You should follow @autismspeaks on Twitter for more blog recommendations and relevant news. But awareness groups like Autism Speaks aren’t only maintaining a presence on social networking sites like Faceboook and Twitter- they have created their own! Autism Speaks’ autism social networking site provides a venue, complete with blog lists and forums members of the autism community to share insights, opinions and information. Autism Blogger is another social networking site that allows people who have been affected by autism to share their stories, provide support and to help others. Many of these bloggers respond to autism’s portrayal by the media, which links you to more autism-related content (particularly YouTube videos).

Estée Klar’s blog, To Get To The Other Side, is one of my favorites to follow.  Estée is the founder and executive director of The Autism Acceptance Project and is the mother of a young autistic son named Adam. Her blog, formerly known as The Joy of Autism, has been given numerous awards, as well as listed in the top 10 autism blogs as well as the top 100 health blogs. In order to support and enrich the autistic community,  Estée discusses how we must view autism as a way of being and a natural form of human difference. I found this recent post of hers especially interestingfor its condemnation of Autism Speak’s marketing  that “exploits people’s pain for capital gain: make autism desperate enough and we can raise money to cure it.”

Before blogging existed, books on autism were rather scarce. But, as you will see when you visit some of the autism social networking sites and blog lists linked above, there is certainly a demand for insights, opinion, and information surrounding autism, but this demand was previously hard to recognize because it fell into  The Long Tail .  “Unfiltered by economic scarcity” (The Long Tail, p.53), the supportive voices of the autistic community are now heard through blogging.

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