Friday, September 24, 2010

It really is worthwhile.

I've been on WP nearly five years, and I remember how much I struggled when I first arrived not to spend too much time here. Editors would joke about how easy it was to get sucked into this world, and how one could even end up editing even while sitting on the toilet.

I avoided the obsession, though I had a few weeks where I checked my watchlist more often than I should have. But I wonder if it was really right to have avoided the obsession. What I mean is, if I had given in to the obsession, what would that have done to me? I would have known a lot more, about many topics, than I know now. I would have had a lot more encounters with a diverse crowd of people (more diverse than those I meet in the real world), who would have exposed themselves more fully than most people I meet in the real world. In other words, I would have lived more fully.

This place really is worthwhile.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Real Estate

Wikipedia is an old, upscale neighborhood, and everyone wants in. When I look at the quality of the editors on topics that formerly languished, such as Race and Intelligence, I'm amazed--these are very well-read people, with good judgment, and with the determination to fight back against those who disagree with them.

I think this shows WP's maturity. Previously, political correctness was enough for articles such as Race and Intelligence, but now something more is required--a sensitivity to the arguments from all sides, an ability to discern who is making the most cogent arguments, and a willingness to let the other side express itself even when one fully disagrees.

The change is most likely due to a change in personnel. WP has become so solid and well-established that it has attracted some very solid and well-established people. Some of these are probably academics, but most are intelligent dilettantes. Bien venidos!!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

My students use WP more than ever, and their presentations/papers are much better than they were three years ago. When I look at WP articles that I haven't edited, I am almost always struck by the high quality of those articles. Of course, when I look at articles where I've fought over content, I'm always disappointed. Allowing for my personal biases, I have to concede that progress has occurred. To the whole WP team (or maybe "swarm" would be the better word): keep it up!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lots of problems

Lots of problems; all recognized, many times, by others:
  1. Administrators think they are better than everyone else (you ever hear an admin apologize?). But most of them are just unemployed people with lots of time on their hands.
  2. With today's tools, even a moron can make a huge number of edits each day. Problem is, the morons do exactly that.
  3. The mass of editors are unsophisticated, unable to understand that the worldview they and their friends hold is pretty much limited to newspaper readers in Anglo-America.
  4. The policy on sources is absurd: journalists are considered good sources, but they use much lower quality sources than what would be accepted on WP. As if the average journalist is a good filter for information quality!
  5. The average editor thinks of WP as a mass of weeds that needs to be hacked, not as a garden that should be grown.
This last one seems especially important. When WP first started out, the emphasis was on creating content. Over time, lots of content appeared, and problems with some of that content became obvious (some was created by self-interested editors, some was not really notable, etc.). As new editors came in, they were not confronted with a wonderful blank space to be filled, but with an enormous mass of articles that--according to prevailing wisdom--contained problems. So, as is only natural, they approached WP with an attitude entirely disrespectful of the work that had been done by the first wave of editors. This second wave of editors might perform a valuable role, but I doubt it--a critical attitude is only legitimately adopted by superior people, and the second wave does not appear to be superior in any important way to the first.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Speeding up

There's been a bit of discussion lately about why so many editors are leaving the project. Here's one possible reason: the editing tools have become too powerful. Many of the more inferior editors appear to pride themselves on the number of edits they make, and these powerful tools allow them to vastly increase their rate of "productivity." What kind of quality can one expect from an editor who dashes madly about, making hundreds of edits a day? What kind of edit can one expect from an editor who is just spending seconds on each "contribution"? Mostly what one sees are reverts or deletions, since adding content takes a fair amount of time.

By and large, deletionists don't write articles--their primary activity is to delete the work of other people, and they do this not out of principle, but simply because this is the fastest way they can increase their edit count. Deletion is not in itself bad, but it is bad when done without sufficient thought. In most cases, thinking over a bad piece of text will enable an editor to rewrite it. WP's improvement requires thoughtful rewriting, not frantic deletion.

It would be nice to see a change in attitude toward edit counts--if there were a bit of a stigma to generating hundreds of edits a day, the deletionists would become a much weaker force on WP.

Friday, October 2, 2009

It belongs to everyone

Wikipedia is a commons, the property of us all. It's like the city park that, as Jane Jacobs observed, because it belongs to everyone, belongs to no one. People who have nothing better to do drift into the park: the unemployed, the drunk, the homeless. Respectable people scurry quickly through, and because they don't feel a sense of ownership, they don't speak up and reprimand those who behave in antisocial ways.

Wikipedia is like that city park, in that anyone can show up, but most people have something better to do. Editors who spend all day long at Wikipedia, accumulating hundreds of edits a day, are fairly common. These cannot have jobs, cannot have families, cannot even have many dates. Try to visualize these editors and an image appears of a middle-aged guy living in his parents' garage.

Not a problem, except victory in Wikipedia always belongs to the most persistent. In a dispute, people with real responsibilities will state their case and then give up if it looks like a long struggle is ahead. People with a lot of time on their hands can thus often get their way, and can easily manage to become a real pest without actually falling afoul of the rules.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Academic Freedom

Most Wikipedia editors are clueless about academic freedom. Like the common run of folks, they believe that an academic should be busy producing insights that confirm what all of us already know. Their reaction to an academic whose work has unveiled uncomfortable truths is one of distaste, repulsion, condemnation. Perhaps the best example would be that of historians specializing in the late Ottoman Empire, historians such as Justin McCarthy. McCarthy, a demographer able to read the Ottoman archives, has examined changes in local populations during the last years of the empire, and has supplied substantive numbers to the claims and counterclaims of ethnic cleansing and massacres during that period. His conclusions are not to the taste of those who maintain that there was an "Armenian Genocide." How is McCarthy treated on Wikipedia? By being formally categorized as an "Armenian Genocide Denier." I'm not making this up, take a look.

The Ottoman historians are not alone. Hostile editors edit articles on other academics working on controversial issues. A good example is Richard Lynn, an IQ researcher who has become a leading expert on between-group IQ differences. His work is extremely politically incorrect, but its quality compares favorably with that of his more politically correct peers. A decent article on Lynn has eventually emerged on Wikipedia, but it took a long time, and lots of struggle.

A final example would be that of Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who spent his career examining cases of children who appear to remember details of past lives. His findings give mild support to the existence of reincarnation, a result not at all to the liking of skeptics, who are imbued with the unshakable faith that reincarnation can not possibly exist. Stevenson's article, as well as the related article on "reincarnation research", have been turned into pages where obscure journalists are cited to buttress claims that this research is "pseudo-science". Problem is, Stevenson's team has produced the only scientific work on reincarnation, so it boggles the imagination how those defenders of science--the skeptics--are able to announce that science disagrees with his findings.