Photo credit: Bjorn de Leeuw
- remixed by Robin Good
In spite of Wikipedia's editors correcting his gibberish quickly and effectively, the question of how to get Wiki content to be both democratic and authoritative is not being addressed very effectively yet by Wiki proponents.
The enormous potential for collaborative content will go largely unrealized until more effective systems are put in place that recognize how hard it is to defend a democratic publishing institutions from the tyrannies of both the mobs and the authorities.
The recent Wikimania conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts attracted a global spectrum of participants and speakers focusing on collaboratively edited Wiki databases in general and the projects sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundation in particular. Wikipedia, the fast-growing reference site sponsored by the Wikimedia Foundaton, was certainly an important figure in this convocation, but hardly the only factor that is pushing collaboratively edited content into the limelight. Wikipedia gains the vast share of media attention but there are a raft of other projects that are beginning to take shape in Wiki format both online and in major institutions. The importance of Wikis comes not through any inherent virtue in its software but because both consumers and professionals are beginning to accept user-edited databases as useful and entertaining content sources.
The creation of Wikis is accelerating as free and affordable software becomes widespread. Wiki hosting services such as Wikia and Wetpaint are making Wiki development more accessible to the users whose contributions make or break a Wiki, just as weblogs exploded once services like Blogger and TypePad made it easy for pretty much anyone to push out their own content to the world. And also similar to weblogs Wiki projects individually may not look to be all that earth-shattering - MuppetWiki may never become a hot destination site - but the sum of encouraged contributors builds content over time that becomes authoritative and reference-worthy.
How reference-worthy? That's a hot question these days.
Photo credit: Stephen Colbert on Wikis
Wikipedia was edited recently by television persona Stephen Colbert on his show to demonstrate (video) how anyone could come along to change his Wikipedia bio or most other information on the database and it would take as accepted fact if other volunteer editors agreed with him - a concept he dubbed "Wikiality". Colbert's specious edits were eliminated quickly, along with scores of others from his viewers, but Wikipedia wound up having to lock down many entries to prevent mass falsehoods from being posted.
The media fallout was huge, including the Washington Post's observation that there needed to be a system of transparency that would allow Wikipedia users to understand how and who was responsible for a Wiki article's content.
Even teenagers chimed in on how Wikipedia was not reliable information in the eyes of their teachers.
The issue of making Wikis more authoritative resonated at Wikimania on several levels. Brewster Kahle was among many at the conference urging Wikipedia to develop for helping its writers cite their own sources, even as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was announcing experiments in its German edition to "freeze" content that's considered definitive. Michael Eisen, one of the founders of the Public Library of Science, pointed out that the gains posted by the open access movement argue for Wikis becoming an important tool that can develop alternatives to traditional peer-reviewed scientific content.
These are all great sentiments and steps in a constructive direction, but they all dance around an important question: how does the Wiki movement resolve the seemingly opposite concepts of democratic community authoring and authoritative authoring? Here are a few thoughts as to how Wikis need to evolve to become tools that are more attuned to both user expertise and the need for authoritative sourcing:
While Wikis work pretty well when they try to capture fast-moving topics, there's little accountability for the end result that would support authoritative referencing. When I provided our definition for "content" to Wikipedia last year ("In publishing and media content is information and experiences created by individuals, institutions and technology to benefit audiences in venues that they value."), the definition was accepted easily enough, and you can use the "History" function of Wikipedia to see how it evolved - but there's no record of the process that lead to its acceptance available to the public and no easy way to cite authors or reviewers. Democracy in content is a powerful force with great potential for good, but democracy with only partial accountability is a formula for disguising tyranny and deception.
There's a lot to be said for content developing through well-intended peers into authoritative reference sources, but the gap between consensus-driven acceptance and authority-driven acceptance remains wide. There needs to be an openly documented "graduation" process that Wiki content can undergo to be promoted to be the equivalent of peer-reviewed content as accepted by scholarly circles. These authoritative reviewers need not necessarily be chosen from above - who better to select peer reviewers than one's peers - but as other social media outlets have already started to recognize the quality of contributors more effectively so must Wikis evolve to allow for distinguished and recognized reviewers to develop for specific topics.
Right now in the typical Wiki environment users have little or no choice in filtering their versions: it's a full democratic view or nothing. Wikis should continue to allow open editing wherever feasible, but at the same time users should be able to choose between open-edited content and authoritatively edited content as they prefer - and to let audiences know these preferences in sum. When open-edited content fails to attract the audience that authoritatively edited content provides, it would be a message to users that the mob is probably off base. If open-edited content prevails, it would be a message to the authorities that the mob is on to something.
As Wikis start evolving into more trusted and authoritative sources of democratically edited content they must confront the reality that democracies are fragile inventions that have fallen oftentimes to tyrannies out of their unwillingness to confront the weaknesses of both the mob and the authorities.
If Wikimania is to grow beyond a self-congratulating cult using ad hoc tools to a phenomenon that can have a lasting effect on both scholarship and learning it must confront the need to move its idealism towards more lasting solutions for developing trusted and trustworthy content.
About the author
John Blossom's career spans more than twenty years of marketing, research, product management and development in advanced information and media venues, including major financial publishers and financial services companies, as well as earlier experience in broadcast media. Mr. Blossom founded Shore Communications Inc. in 1997, specializing in research and advisory services and strategic marketing consulting for publishers and consumers of content services.
Content Industry Outlook 2006: Investing in Users
If 2005 was the year that forced publishers, aggregators and content technology companies to come to grips with thriving new business models for content, 2006 is going to be the year in which these new models will need far greater investment in infrastructure and in new ways of publishing and marketing to tailor their services to increasingly sophisticated users untethered from many traditional content sources, distribution channels and platforms. Shore sees four key areas where investing in users will be most active: packaging, platform, premium and personalization. You can download the complimentary ShoreViews report, which provides an overview of Shore’s major themes for the content industry in 2006 from Shore President John Blossom and other senior analysts in the Shore network.
Photo credit for first two icons above: Jamie Cross
Photo credit for third icon: Dzimitry StankevichJohn Blossom -