Two dead senators and an extra Wilhelm 
Some people have suggested to me that I should try my hand at writing some newspaper op-ed pieces. One natural topic for me, given where my research intersects with the interests of the guy down at the Dairy Queen, is nattering about the Wikipedia. So last month, in response to then current events, I wrote a piece that essentially recapitulates the thesis of my Episteme paper.

I submitted it a couple of places, but no luck. Rather than leave it in a directory on my hard drive where no one will ever read it, I've opted to put it here on the blog where no one will read it...
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There is no 'you' in 'Wikipedia' 
As the NY Times reports, the free-wheeling days of Wikipedia editing may be over. The crackdown follows a recent incident in which Wikipedia entries reported Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd were reported to be dead. As the Washington Post admits, the false claims only persisted for a few minutes. Nevertheless, the story is headlined "Kennedy, Byrd the Latest Victims of Wikipedia Errors", suggesting that the misreports somehow harmed or inconvenienced the two old and frail senators. Piffle, of course, and the Post story concludes by giving examples of traditional news media misreporting obituaries. [insert apt quote from Mark Twain]

This has led Wikipedia cofounder Jimbo Wales to call for changes in the way Wikipedia works. Wikipedia visitors who are not logged in as trusted users would no longer be able to change articles and have the revisions appear immediately. Instead, their changes would have to be approved by a trusted user before they would become part of the Wikipedia corpus.

It is unclear how much delay this would produce. Wales hopes it would not be more than a week. There is a tension here: If the restriction is only for some articles rather than others, then there will still be an evanescent flux of falsehoods in the rest of the Wikipedia. If the restriction is extended to all or most of the Wikipedia, then the delay will become intolerable.

Delay is also problematic because several users may change a page before any of the changes are accepted. If they are all adding the same information and making the same corrections, then some editor will need to decide which version to use. If they are making different changes in overlapping parts of an article, then some editor will have to fix the grammar and usage to make the changes fit together. In short: Jumbled nightmare.

In addition to adding delay, the process puts more power in the hands of approved Wikipedia users. Note that this is not simply the divide between registered users and anonymous users; the Ted Kennedy death reports were entered by registered user Gfdjklsdgiojksdkf. So the elite corps of trusted Wikipedia users will have responsibility for what appears in these shielded articles.

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Popping the stack 
Via daring fireball and makkintosshu, I learned that the URL http://www.apple.com/hypercard now redirects to the Wikipedia entry for Hypercard. This is a counterpart to the more common sin of bloggers linking uncommon terms in their prose to the Wikipedia entry for that term.* So I'll talk about that first.

Suppose I am reading a post and come across a word or topic that I am not familiar with. I always have the option of opening a new tab and searching the web for more information; if I were so inclined, I could just start my search with the Wikipedia.

If the author of the webpage has bothered to include a hyperlink, however, it suggests that they are specifically recommending that I look at whatever source they've hyperlinked. Suppose they actually have looked at the Wikipedia entry and deemed it to be quality. They have thus used whatever expertise they have to vouch for the Wikipedia entry. Since the Wikipedia entry might have changed since they vetted it, I might or not be able to trust the present entry. So bloggers who really have looked at the entry to confirm its quality should link to the dated version of the entry that they read, rather than the always-current entry. Alternately, they might link to both. (This argument is part of my forthcoming paper.)

If the author of the webpage inserts the link without really looking at the Wikipedia entry, as seems too often to be the case, then what do they think they are doing? If I am puzzled by the term, then the link doesn't give me anything more than what I would turn up if I did my own web search on the topic. If I am not puzzled, then the link is an annoying distraction. I might waste time clicking on it, mistaking it for seem actual content.** The link is clutter in any case, and it adds no real functionality to the page.

The take home lesson for bloggers: Stop it!

For Apple: If the Wikipedia entry were edited to say that Hypercard assisted in the assassination of Robert Kennedy, then Apple would be somewhat complicit in the fib. At the same time, it is unclear how the redirect is any more helpful than a spartan page which says that Apple no longer maintains Hypercard. Anyone coming across such a page while actually trying to learn about Hypercard could easily go find the Wikipedia page on their own.

It seems that links to Wikipedia are to webpages in 2009 like Comic Sans was to allegedly-funny print outs in 1999.


* What I say about bloggers applies the authors of webpages more generally. Samuel Arbesman discusses the London Tube map in the contect of introducing his really neat map of the Milky Way and includes some gratuitous links to Wikipedia.

** One might change the stylesheet to include a type of link that looks about like ordinary text. At least then the gratuitous links wouldn't be distracting clutter.

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Playing telephone with the echo chamber 
There's been some blog reaction to my fibs in Wikipedia paper. That's unsurprising, since the paper is freely available on-line and addresses a topic close to some bloggers' hearts.

What surprises me a bit is that all of the reactions interpret my study as vindicating Wikipedia. My result is certainly a midpoint between despair and celebration for Wikipedia; about a third of the fibs were fixed in the studied time window, but (it follows) about two-thirds of them were not. Since there is good reason to think that the probability of being fixed falls of rapidly after the edit is made, this figure does not allow us to extrapolate a half life for fibs. Nonetheless, Jason Pannone mentions my study and says, "I'm not sure that this article will sway skeptics, but it does offer some additional empirical evidence that minor errors in Wikipedia are corrected quickly."

Kent Anderson points to my paper and briefly summarizes the result. He misinterprets it slightly, taking 1/3 of the fibs fixed to include only those cases in which the fib was removed entirely. This allows him to give the optimistic spin that "additional entries were flagged with 'need citation,' indicating that they had been caught and the time to correction was near." Blogging librarian Rhondda read about my paper in Anderson's blog and summarizes it this way: "The study showed that Wikipedia's methods for checking for small inaccuracies are validated. ... Within 48 hours, those that had not been corrected, had been flagged as needing adjustment." Some others were flagged (Anderson's error) becomes all others were flagged, so that every single fib was caught by someone. If the game of telephone continued, someone down the line might summarize my study as showing that Wikipedia fixes errors with divine inerrancy, before they occur.

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My insidious lies 
A short paper of mine was just published in First Monday. The abstract is this:
A number of studies have assessed the reliability of entries in the Wikipedia at specific times. One important difference between the Wikipedia and traditional media, however, is the dynamic nature of its entries. An entry assessed today might be substantially extended or reworked tomorrow. This paper assesses the frequency with which small, inaccurate changes are quickly corrected.
My methodology was to introduce fibs into the Wikipedia entries on the lives of philosophers and watch the entries for 48 hours. If they had not been corrected, I removed them after that time.

The gist of it is that 10 out of 28 changes (36%) were either flagged or reverted within 48 hours. This is an adjusted number, but I think the more informative one; see the paper for all the whingeing and analysis.

It would have done no good to insert the very same fib into a great many entries, because that might have alerted someone to the systematic nature of the endeavor. So I had to make up a lot of different fibs. That part of the study was kind of fun, and I thought I'd provide a bit of colour commentary that would have been inappropriate in the list of data. None of the following were flagged or corrected.

Of Gottfried Leibniz: "Many of his manuscripts are written in a shorthand of his own invention which uses binary numbers to encode sequences of characters." As Cristyn was quick to mention, there is no way that a binary encoding could be a shorthand. It provably maximizes the number of characters required to encode information!

Of Jeremy Bentham: "As a child, he wrote a series of imaginative dialogues between an unnamed boy and wisdom incarnate in the form of a tiger. These were never published, but reflected the author's early interest in writing and philosophy." I originally wrote this with Thomas Hobbes in mind.

Of Friedrich Nietzsche, in the context of his book not selling well: "In a letter to Victoria Regina, Nietzsche even entertained the possibility of burning the remaining copies to collect on insurance." I was tickled by the thought of despondent Nietzsche writing the Queen of England about his troubles. It is like the premise for a romantic comedy. The fib about Thomas Hill Green's writing to the Queen was caught and corrected, for what it's worth.

In the entry on Rudolf Carnap: "The Vienna Circle was also a tightly-knit social group. They regularly met to play cards, including a bridge-like game of their own devising called Whistenschaft." Ha! I crack myself up.

Of Gilbert Ryle: "After retiring, Ryle bought a small farm. He tinkered with automated processes to care for livestock, although they never proved to be commercially viable." That would explain why Ryle was so down on the goats in the machine.

Of Karl Popper: "[H]e lived on a cooperative farm. He later claimed that nothing prepares the mind for philosophy like milking a cow." There is nothing especially Popperian about this bon mot, but I was tickled by it.

Of GE Moore: "His influence outside philosophy includes a reference to him in the signature line of the musical Oliver." Please, sir... I'd like some Moore. (groan)

I had enough fun conducting this study that I worried a bit that it was silly and petulant. As I mention in the conclusion of the article, there are systematic issues that should discourage anyone from doing a larger-scale version of this study. And probing the Wikipedia should not be used as an excuse for haphazard vandalism. Yet I do think that the study was worth doing, and using less entertaining fibs would not have improved it any.

UPDATE 7Sep: Fixed the link to the complete list of fibs and added mention of the GE Moore pun.

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