Monday, June 16, 2008

WikiMystery 4: First Principals

Wikipedia isn't a typical wiki. Indeed, in WikiMystery 1 I asked whether MediaWiki, its software, still has WikiNature. But Wikipedia is a very big wiki, and so it naturally is sometimes the first to encounter problems of scale and governance that will eventually confront lots of wikis. It's a test case, in the way that Ward's Wiki was a test case for wikis back in the day.

A problem with Wikipedia as a test case is that some of its core principals are probably incoherent, but there seems no good way to fix them. The whole notion of the universal encylopedia is one example: Wikipedia bursts triumphantly on the scene just as everyone had pretty much abandoned hope for the memory of Mortimer Adler's grand project to revive the encyclopedia. Everyone compares it to Brittanica, but few people remember that Brittanica’s last hope was Adler’s fresh arrangement, the ill-fated 15th edition, which debuted in 1974 to no great acclaim.

Second, there's the whole question of NPOV, the Wikipedia rules about "neutral point of view." Obviously, without NPOV you'd fill Wikipedia with advertisements and polemics and propaganda; NPOV is a useful club with which to chase the cranks and the cooks. But the New Journalism is about to celebrate its fiftieth birthday, and I think it's been a full generation since people really believed that a neutral point of view was either possible or desirable.

Third, the tradition of anonymous editors means that a zealous high school student carries the same weight in any subject as the world's leading expert — and the world's leading experts, when they participate, must write everything — including their editorial memos, sources, and rationales — in terms the high school student will find convincing.

And then there's the doctrine of Notability.