Thursday, February 14, 2008

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

There are a number of ways to read Mary Spicuzza's article about Wikipedia in this week's SF Weekly, published in print as "Wikipidiots" and on the Web site as "Wikipedia Idiots: The Edit Wars of San Francisco." Personally, I found myself reading it as a narrative account that warrants the proposition that what counts for editing on Wikipedia is anything but. This provides interesting counterpoint to a remark that Jimmy Wales once made that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle to the effect that the only way to read a Wikipedia article was to follow the discussion and edit trails as well as the "primary" text. If one then applies this strategy by going to the comments submitted to the Web version of Spicuzza's article, it does not take long to get first-hand experience of her subject matter. While it is true that Plato tried to enhance the readability of his dialogs by providing his "characters" with (often contentious) personalities, I doubt that he would have appreciated the extent to which the discussion of entries in a would-be encyclopedia that has become a major Internet resource has assumed all the personality traits of WWE Friday Night Smackdown! In an effort to return the debate over the Wikipedia philosophy to a more sober (if less entertaining) level, I would like to address three areas of Spicuzza's article that deserve some clarification beyond the scope of her narrative.

  1. The "wisdom of crowds" question.
  2. The matter of anonymity.
  3. The nature of editing.

Let's begin with the difficulty of finding any discussion of Wikipedia that does not fall back on the "wisdom of crowds" question, sometimes dealing with it as scientific fact by citing James Surowiecki's 2004 book. I continue to be amused that just about anyone who hauls out Surowiecki never seems to have time for Charles Mackay, perhaps because Mackay wrote in the nineteenth century. For the record Wikipedia has pages for both Mackay and his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, both of which are pretty skimpy compared with most Wikipedia entries that I visit (but then the Surowiecki entry is also quite short). Mackay was primarily interested in economic bubbles, but one way to examine the phenomena of wisdom and madness side-by-side might be to compare the respective aftermaths of the American and French Revolutions. This is very much a two-sided coin; and I have already written about the investigation of social theorist James Coleman into what makes a crowd wise or mad. He framed it as what he called the "micro-to-macro problem:" What is the relationship between individual (micro) and group (macro) behavior and can it be predicted? Just don't expect to find any conclusive results in Coleman's publications!

Nevertheless, my second point may provide a useful perspective of Coleman's past achievement; and I suspect that I have Andrew Keen to thank, at least in part, for this insight, because much of his Cult of the Amateur argument has to do with the dangers of anonymity. It may well be that anonymity tilts the crowd towards madness, while identity transparency tilts it towards wisdom. Keen even went so far as to suggest in his Great Seduction blog that a Platonic dialogue could not be conducted in all its dual richness of knowledge and language in "the anonymous blogosphere." In a more modern setting, brainstorming sessions seem to work best when there is face-to-face accountability, as long as the rule of no out-of-hand rejection is rigorously enforced. On the other side of the coin, T. S. Eliot made it a point of stressing the anonymity (and, therefore, lack of accountability) of the four knights who killed Thomas Becket in his play, Murder in the Cathedral, going so far as to introduce the ironic device of having each knight address the audience (after the murder) in character but for the sake of declaring how anonymous he is!

Still, this potential role of anonymity remains a hypothesis that will need some tweaking to accommodate other data points. For example there are the research results concerned with decision-making based on large populations of anonymous voters. Many of the results have been impressive; but the best results seem to emerge only if it is impossible for the voters to communicate with each other, not only for discussion but also to see "where the vote is going." (In other words voting on Yahoo! News articles is a poor rating system because every voter sees how many have already voted and where the decision currently stands.) Thus, positive results may have more to do with the negative effect accountability through communication, rather than the positive effect of anonymity. One wonders how Plato would have reacted to this, given his own investigation, in his "Theaetetus," of the role of an account (λόγος) in the nature of knowledge itself. Perhaps the real problem is that we do not understand the nature of communication among anonymous conversants very well; and, given Habermas' thesis that communicative actions are not solely objective but also rest on foundations in the subjective and social worlds, it is particularly difficult to assign attributes of personality and socialization to the "raw text" of anonymous individuals.

My final point is one I have already discussed. However, in light of the question of anonymity, I have always felt that every author has a voice; and one of the jobs of the editor is to identify that voice and make sure it is speaking clearly. So, having reduced editing to the foundations of logic, grammar, rhetoric, and voice, it should not surprise anyone that I view the "street-fighting approach" to editing at Wikipedia (the primary focus of Spicuzza's article) as a pretty bald perversion of the basic concept. What is worse is that there are so many other places where the Internet supports such street fighting that it is hard to imagine why Wikipedia continues to defend the practice as an asset. The only explanation I can give is the usual one of technocentric arrogance: Having now "embraced" the value of editing to the Wikipedia philosophy, Wales is now dead-set on implementing it under the assumption that he knows more about the process than any professional editor out there who labors under the burden of outmoded training. Caveat lector, indeed!

No comments: