Aint no pedia like Wikipedia

Gracula religiosa is the latin name of the Hill Myna, a beautiful bird seen along the Western Ghats and associated South Indian hills. It is one of the endemic birds here and has recently been elevated to a full species, and rechristened Southern Hill Myna. Not getting into the boring details of why this was done, and how this is relevant to anybody, the above image introduces you to the similar looking forms of this bird, found across several areas and islands in South and Southeast Asia. Now, whether these other forms are actually the brothers of the myna we see in places in the Western Ghats or cousins, once, twice or thrice removed is the boring taxonomic question. Pages and pages of literature are available on the above and lists are often updated. Particularly, bird families such as warblers are prone to causing confusion and consternation, both in the field as well as in literature!

Now, this beautiful illustration that is used in a small corner of the article on the hill myna is created by a volunteer editor and a friend for Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia…..the one that ‘anybody can edit’. Well, almost….and that is exactly the problem for Evgeny Morozov. In an article for the Boston Review, he presents his viewpoint on the way wikipedia is being run (or not run).

Illustrations like the one that Shyamal has created are created voluntarily and for illustrating wikipedia articles. However, the fact that people like Shyamal have put up these illustrations in Wikimedia commons under a license that permits anybody to use it, especially for non-commercial and educational purposes evokes intrigue and incomprehensibility for Morozov. He asks “Why do Wikipedians spend countless hours improving the site, often doing mundane, repetitive tasks they would never do for money?” It is a very well articulated question? And it would be too romantic of me to profess, greater common good or information equity as answers. While such lofty ideas do drive many contributions, many others are there for much more mundane reasons – geekiness, exercising authority and many others for sheer fun.

Wikimedia commons is an immense repository of over 5,000,000

Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper
Scan of the front page of an 1838 Danish newspaper
images and media contributed by the same ragtag lot that is alluded to in the article by Morozov. These are today being used widely in schools, colleges, research presentations and to illustrate scientific work as well! The site encourages reuse, if necessary with modification in as many words! For me, this is an expression of information equity. An effort at bringing information of all kinds on a platform where it is easily usable by anybody, with no tags attached. Just that, if achieved, I would view any number of articles that happen on Wikipedia as just a fringe benefit. And what I see is much more than fringe, and a lot more than benefit.

Morozov’s rant on Wikipedia spurred a few thoughts of mine that are neglected in his piece.

Bureaucracy was expected

Morozov brings up the valid argument that bureaucracy is choking the cyclopaedia. No large institution was ever run as in a fly-by-wire manner in which small NGOs or garage-based companies are run. Bureaucracy is an expected consequence of such a mass collaboration. If you compare wikipedia to countries, it started off as a kingdom (very briefly in the beginning), progressed to run like a small NGO, then a garage-based company, but now the numbers are just too much! Yes, it does need a bureaucracy to sustain it. In the Mintzberg prism, this would be a transition of Wikipedia as an adhocracy initially into a mechanistic bureaucracy. Yes, it is unfortunate.

Growth of Wikipedia is plateauing

After the few million articles that got created, what did anybody expect? The development that is going to happen over the next few years is going to be much more on quality. Wikignomes go about improving citations, checking spellings, inserting quotations and italicising Latin names of biota. In isolation, all of these are ‘those mundane edits’ that Morozov talks about, but in summation, they add up to much more.

The demography of wikipedia

“Wikipedians are 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, and around 70 percent of them are under the age of 30.” I am male, single, without a child and around 30! I am a fairly representative sample of a Wikipedian editor. Now, Morozov intends to portray this as a consequence of Wikipedia. I believe this to be the cause.

In July 2003 Lih joined the then-two-year-old encyclopedia, and within a few months became one of its administrators. (That a novice could move up so quickly illustrates how badly Wikipedia needed talent in its early days.)

Being an administrator is not an award for editing or a promotion of sorts. Morozov confuses the designation of admin on wikipedia to be that of a higher caste of editors, while in fact, many prolific content contributors are not admins. They don’t choose to be either. I will not get into this, but the wikipedia I see and the one he sees are quite different.

Experts are forced to engage in pointless debates with Wikipedia’s bureaucratic guardians, many of whom are persuaded only by hyper links, not cogent arguments.

Scientific collaboration and networking among professionals has increased many times through Wikipedia. Biologists across the world interact with others for identification of photographs. They share data, viewpoints and arguments. There are curators of leading museums among the editorial team at Wikipedia. These get missed out in the bad biographical articles that get picked up by the media. It is nice and easy to write a polemical piece by choosing the skeletons from Wikipedia’s cupboard (which is open for all to see, by the way), but not an easy task to appreciate the meticulousness with which several professionals and amatuers collaborate in this internally chaotic, but wonderful exercise….a bit like…ahem…life itself. In an era, where divorces between erstwhile lovers is so high, how could anybody expect seamless co-existance of a few thousand editors from across the globe writing on issues from Palestine conflict to fellatio in fruit bats!

That Wikipedia is chaotic, bureaucratic, plateauing in growth and biting newcomers is all quite well known and has been said before. Morozov deserves credit for putting these things together in one essay. But, seeing the end of Wikipedia round the corner is more than just speculation.

I have spent a few thousand edits and a few hours on Wikipedia. I continue to, in fact. Recently, I was impressed by an article in a scientific journal calling for wikipedia contributions from scientists, more as a professional responsibility rather than some late evening altruism. But like most others (I presume), my work on Wikipedia has been immensely satisfying for me. A side-effect of this was that several article got written or improved. And that is the strength of Wikipedia. It never had the great grand vision that our chieftain evangelises around the globe. The stuff he talks about happens is a side-effect, which is not at all bad for me or for Wikipedia. It is only people who have charted some kind of a yardstick for Wikipedia that keep getting disappointed.

Anyways, the point I am trying to make is that Wikipedia is the best we have. The mundane editing that happens is an inescapable consequence of keeping the encyclopaedia open. The governance is transparent and open to criticism. It is much too early to pass a judgement on online content collaborations such as the one that Wikipedia is leading. The delicate balance between conserving professionalism and keeping alive collaboration by amateurs is being managed brilliantly by Wikipedia. Other spin-offs which tweaked the balance some slightly, and others more towards the professional, are slowly fading away. We could do a China, and legislate articles, or blow up internally like a banana republic….but, well, at wikipedia, we choose democracy. Democracy comes at a high price, and we pay that for Wikipedia. It is slower to get that damned card from the ‘sarkari’ office, but hey, at least, I do not have to get orders about my future from a colonel!

In as much as Morozov points out these things like the extreme bureaucratisation, ‘biting of newcomers’ and the flawed model in adminship and regulation of biographical articles, he is absolutely right. There are umpteen discussions ongoing in the back alleys of Wikipedia on all these. Change will come slowly, and that is a flaw. But there is no better way to it.

And, still that ultimate question is not answered which I have put up on my user page

“This user believes that anyone who thinks Wikipedia is an unreliable source should continue their quest to find a better website.”

Image sources: Wikimedia Commons/Shyamal


One response to “Aint no pedia like Wikipedia”

  1. Pavithra Sankaran Avatar
    Pavithra Sankaran

    Have you see this?
    It says more about the motivations of Wikipedia authors and editors than any lengthy article ever could. I loves it!

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