August 10, 2003

What's a Wiki?

I have a few half-finished blog entries, but at the moment no time to finish them. I'm immersed in a project for which the deadline looms large.

Late last night, I found myself in a wired state that I really try to avoid now that I have a toddler: too wide awake to sleep and yet too mentally numb to work. Having spent the day on the details of my project, I googled one of the central figures of said project. I wasn't expecting to discover anything new or exciting about this author (as my superego put it, 'What is the point? You are wasting valuable sleep time with your googling: Get offline and get to bed!'), and my google search answered this lack of expectation. I did, however, come across something interesting: the second or third search result led me to an entry at the Wikipedia, "a multilingual project to create a complete and accurate open content encyclopedia."

Now, when it comes to technology, computers, software, and the like, I think it's fair (not to mention accurate) to say that I'm not exactly on the cutting edge. My typical response to a new term such as "wiki" is to vaguely wonder what it means, and then carry on in a state of ignorance, if not bliss. I probably won't make a real effort to find out more unless and until it's right in my face.

I still don't know what "wiki" means, exactly. But I now have a general idea of what this wiki business is all about. The interesting thing, of course, is that anyone can post content, and anyone can edit or revise anyone else's posted content.

Which brings me to the Wikipedia entry to which my googling led. The problem with this entry was not that it offered a potted summary that merely skimmed the surface. After all, what's an encyclopedia for? No, the problem was that it contained several egregious errors of fact. To cite one example, my author, who wrote an influential work on criticism (by which he roughly meant what would come to be known as literary criticism), was credited with publishing a work on cynicism.

Thus ensued an innner dialogue between my superego and, well, my other superego:

Superego 1: It's late, you're tired, and you have to get up early to do some real work. Get off the net and get to bed.
Superego 2: But this entry is all wrong. I think I should fix it.
Superego 1: Are you crazy? You don't even know what a "wiki" is. But whatever it is, nobody could take this thing seriously as a repository of fact, and neither should you.
Superego 2: But some people might take it seriously. It comes up number 2 or 3 on a google search. And apparently most undergraduates now begin (and many of them end) their research on the Internet. Some student will across this entry and write a term paper which cites a nonexistent title on cynicism.
Superego 1: That's not your concern. And anyway, you're applying a different set of standards to this wiki-thingy. If they wanted the entries written by those with specialized knowledge in the relevant areas, they wouldn't have open content. Your pedantry just misses the point. This is why people hate academics. Get the hell offline and get to bed.

Well, Supergo 2 won out: I just couldn't exit that page without fixing a couple of factual errors. But after reading a few related entries (and not editing the content, because here Superego 1 prevailed, and I did get off the Internet and get myself to bed), I have forbidden myself from visiting the Wikipedia.

Anyway, I suppose the idea is that if enough people participate, eventually the entries will be revised and refined into accuracy? It's an interesting concept, but I have to say I am wee bit sceptical.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 10, 2003 10:29 AM

well, the problem might be that the facts of the matter are quite disputable. it used to be that you could go get two or three encyclopedia like britannica, world, etc. off the shelf and in comparative entries find disputed dates etc. which is why they are encyclopedia and not peer reviewed published essays, they rely on a body of knowledge which may or may not be the case over time. If you know something is wrong though, in wikipedia, you should fix it, because at least it creates the disputational space in which people can then further research.

Posted by: jeremy hunsinger at August 10, 2003 01:58 PM

off-topic but...

photo links of babe Adelynde at blog

Posted by: meika at August 10, 2003 07:42 PM

Run away!

I am a Wikipedia survivor -- it's a dangerous addiction even worse than blogging (which has replaced it, and luckily takes up less time). It was a lovely idea, but I fear that it is really only useful for chronological info -- in other words, a jumped up digital world almanac of factoids. For that it is going to be unparalleled.

The eeeedjits come out of the woodwork (look at the history on Gdansk for a nice example) and the flame wars, though subdued, burn hot.

The 'protection' feature is interesting but much underused.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at August 11, 2003 12:23 PM

They're probably more useful for accreting the knowledge of a group that has some social structure already. Such a group (say, the people in a business who are responsible for the annual whoozit *this* year; or a theater group all of whom have day jobs; etc) has methods of guessing whose input is most useful, and mostly needs a place to put comments-in-passing and search for them later.

Posted by: clew at August 11, 2003 04:35 PM

I had the same experience (minus some superego battling); I ran into a Wikipedia entry, saw some egregious errors, fixed them, and exited never to return. I somehow intuited the situation that Michael describes, and life is too short.

Interesting idea, though.

Posted by: language hat at August 11, 2003 06:50 PM

I've avoided the wikipedia, but I can tell you that "wiki" comes from a Hawaiian word meaning "quick" -- the idea behind it being that it was a *quick* way to develop a hub of related pages on a topic or topics.

Ah, the useless knowledge one acquires writing about web culture!

Posted by: Michele Tepper at August 12, 2003 02:03 AM

The first Wiki is at
Check out the WhyWikiWorks and WhyWikiWorksNot links for some interesting discussion. WikiHistory is nice also.

Posted by: Jim at August 16, 2003 10:10 PM

I use a wiki page in my teaching. Wikis are great for getting students to collaborate on composing documents, to create FAQ lists and tipsheets, and to keep public, up-to-date lecture summaries together. It's a great way to keep the class informal, interactive, and collaborative.

I do find that many students never get used to the idea of modifying someone else's words -- especially the prof's. When it works, though, it works pretty well. It's unusual and fun for the students, and it makes the logistics of running a class a little easier.

Posted by: Bob at August 18, 2003 03:35 PM