Friday, February 1, 2008

Wikipedia, Accuracy, and Ideology

There was yet another dust up over the accuracy and appropriateness of Wikipedia in one of the mailing lists I participate in. It happens on a fairly regular basis. About once a month someone impugns the accuracy of Wikipedia -- or the critical judgement of those who cite it -- and in turn others trot out the arguments in defense: the comparison to Encyclopedia Britannica, the similarity of Wikipedia's editorial process to the peer review process of scientific journals, etc.

I try not to get involved. Not because I don't have an opinion, but my opinion is no better or worse than anyone else's. Besides, the argument is not about truth but about perception, which makes it well nigh impossible to win.

My view of Wikipedia is very much in line with that expressed by in the Times of London. It is not really a matter of accuracy. (It is accurate enough.) It is not even a matter of perceived accuracy. (Those who believe in it will, those who don't won't. It is hard to change these perceptions.) It is a matter of how it is being used. Just as you can never trust everything you see in print, you can never trust everything you see online (in Wikipedia or elsewhere). It requires a critical eye and inquiring mind to use reference information effectively and it can rarely be used alone.

But it wasn't the tirades over accuracy that caught my attention, but the specific topics that initiated the tirades. In each case, for the last three flare ups I witnessed, the topic that brought on the argument was not a question of objective fact, but a question of definition.

The fact is that Wikipedia is adequate -- even capacious -- on most topics. This, plus its astounding volume of entries and rapid and active updating make it an extraordinary resource. Despite the highly publicized episodes of factual sabotage or outright fraud (which in most cases are corrected in short order), Wikipedia is now a complete, valuable, and popular font of information.

By "complete" I don't mean finished. A wiki is never done. But at this point, the coverage of topics is truly astonishing and includes almost anything you might expect of an encyclopedia -- and more.

And it is this completeness and Wikipedia's rising popularity that are causing a new problem. Facts are facts: names, dates, events, etc. Even supposition is fine-- rumor or speculative conjecture is allowed and usually tagged appropriately. But definitions are coming under increasing fire.

At first, when Wikipedia was still in its gestation, many different groups worked together to establish entries on topics of mutual interest. Even if they were not in agreement on the exact words, there was lots of talk about "let's get a Wikipedia entry set up up for X..." Presence in the emerging catalog of all knowledge was important.

However, now that Wikipedia is becoming an established source for information, those differences of opinion on topics of subjective truth are becoming battlegrounds for ideological debate. It was not the usual battlegrounds -- religion and politics -- that caught my eye. It was the definition of business terms: Knowledge management, Information architecture, Communities of Practice... These are the new fields of conflict.

The fact is that business terminology is often fuzzy at best. Well, I take that back. These terms are actually almost naively self-defining: knowledge management -- the management of what we know... Information architecture -- defining the structure of an information space... Communities of Practice -- groups of people organized around what they do...

Unfortunately, people quickly start to refine or replace these rudimentary definitions with descriptions of how they believe these goals should be achieved. So knowledge management is no longer managing knowledge, it is specific approaches to managing certain types of knowledge: facilitating communities, selecting and promoting best practices, using story telling to capture implicit knowledge... And quickly the war begins the proponents and detractors of various methodologies.

In the case of information architecture and communities of practice it is not so much how it is done as what it is. What makes a community a community of practice vs. some other type of community. (Aside: this conversation often revolves around metrics for identifying successful communities. But should success be part of a definition? Could there be dysfunctional communities that still qualify? I believe the answer is yes. In fact, I believe I am a member of several...)

This quibbling over definitions comes from ideological differences between the members of the community interested in them -- and sometimes between different communities. For example, information architecture is defined differently if your background is Library Science or Interaction Design (IxD). (Part of the argument is whether interaction design is a subset of information architecture or vice versa. And if information architecture circumscribes IxD and other xD's -- such as user experience design -- is it too large and amorphous to have any meaning?) The fact is that many of these areas -- like so many new practices within business -- are an amalgam of many different components and overlaps and turf wars are bound to arise.

Why should we care about this nitpicking? This haggling will be problematic for Wikipedia because it is only going to get worse as Wikipedia's stature rises and new factions start battling for their ideological foothold in the definition of more and more of business's favorite buzzwords. It is nothing new; these arguments have been going on within the communities I belong to for as long as I can remember. The problem is Wikipedia now gives them a platform in which to take their battle "to the streets", so to speak. I don't believe this can be beneficial to either those unfamiliar with the terms, witnessing the bickering, or to the reputation of the groups involved in the fray.

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