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Posts Tagged ‘promise-tool-bargain’

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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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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