First, of all, the answer is “no”.

The question is what Will at Work Learning poses in Are Wiki’s Inherently Flawed?. While it provides a provoacative blog post title, the question is aimed wrong, and not really even answered.

The underlying belief about wikis is that “all of us are smarter than a few of us.” This is comforting illusion in theory, but is just plain wrong in practice. The mediocre don’t always understand enough to judge an expert’s pronouncements. Groups of people often tend toward groupthink or mob psychosis. Powerful interests often control the public conversation and thus become the final arbiters of what is fact. Conspiracy theories often have ninety-nine lives.

Hmmm, big, strong words, but what data, evidence is this assertion based upon? CogDogBlog’s rule is to be skeptical of any sweeping generalization made about something on the internet, because it is too vast, to deep, to broad, to frigging complex for any person to be that certain.

Yes, let us bow down to experts, because us, the unwashed mediocre, are not worthy. Is Howard Rheingold among the mediocre?

So it is time to for people to be lining up to take potshots at wikis and Wikipedia. Bad wiki, bad, bad, bad.

But is the wiki technology itself “inherently flawed” because of less than ethical activities of a some of the people who have used it malevolently? The wiki part of wikipedia is inherently unflawed, because it performed exactly as designed. It is the process, the people, their actions that ought to be slapped with the “f” word.

Then isn’t email “inherently flawed” because of spam and phishing? Is the web “inherently flawed” because of porn, ugly web sites, broken web sites, and rip off schemes? Is free speech “inherently flawed” because some people use it to for propagating hate?

I am tired of the WikiPedia flogging going on- yes the issue is worth discourse, but it seems to be the only conversation now, and what is being lost in the wash, is the un-heralded, social software fueled human explosion that pushed WikiPedia out there, that created an explosion of information. So is only important thing to be “right”, “factual”, “trusted” as opposed to having a voice in the conversation?

The whole current discussion seems flawed in being polarized; it seems unwise to gloss glowingly on WikiPedia without acknowledging the flaws and inherent issues of mass written content, but it also seems unwise to dismiss the whole process because a smaller number of &$^%ing idiots are pissing in the well.

In the end, though, Will gets around to some salient and worthy suggestions to keep the wiki-thusiasm in check:

* Consider who will be able to add and/or edit the information. The higher the percentage of expertise in your population, the better. The lower the opportunities for personal gain, the less likely you’ll get intentionally troublesome information.
* Build in some validation methods. Build in some skepticism.
* Consider not letting anyone post anonymously.
* Consider forgoing the goal of knowledge creation or learning, and instead focusing on creating hypotheses and generating ideas for future consideration and judgment, networking to increase informal-learning connections.
* Consider building in some sort of assessment system on the value of entries, whether through community scoring, expert scoring, or openness about a person’s posting history and background.
* Insist that each posting include a section entitled, “Why should anyone listen to me about this topic,” or some such addendum.

So if you take all of this to heart, the wiki you use is no different than before; and it is not inherently flawed.

We are. Our human nature is showing.

The post "Throwing Stones at the Wiki Glass House" was originally pulled from under moldy cheese at the back of the fridge at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2005/12/glass-house/) on December 11, 2005.

11 Comments

  • Stephen Downes downes.ca

    The arguments we hear against the proposition that “all of us are smarter than a few of us” are often of the form, ‘one of us few’ is smarter than ‘one of those many’. That’s what Will does here: ‘The mediocre don’t always understand enough to judge an expert’s pronouncements.’ The mediocre *person*, he means – but the whole, not considered as a group of individuals (mediocre or otherwise) just *is* able to judge an expert’s pronouncements, and does so with such nuance that the expert can be caught in errors he or she did not know were being committed.

    And in just such a way, Will’s suggestions, posted above, are flawed. Each consists of some means of *managing* the contribution of information, in such a way as to weigh the contributions toward those qualified to make them. From my perspective, that’s like adding a selective blind spot to Wikipedia. Eliminate the unqualified, for example, and you eliminate the poor – and all of a sudden the entirety of Wikipedia begins to shift, almost unseen, and in a manner to which its (new, qualified) contributes are blind.

  • Yes, Stephen, but your second paragraph really does not apply to all wikis- the WikiPedia is rather special in that it has such a userbase, and ones that use its notification features, that it can be fairly good at self-correction. The size and scope of the participatory audience is a factor.

    For smaller-scale wikis, the kind a humble teacher might set up for her students, or a college posting a shared resource, there are not as many experienced eyes and hands, and a much smaller size and range of users that will monitor it. It is the long-tail wikis that suffer from automated spam attacks and stupid malice, where to me, it merits some more stringent rules that one can have on a totally open wiki.

    It is not my preference, but every wiki I have set up as a resource is either editable now only with a password, or it is a site I do not link to or blog about. It is nearly impossible to get teachers interested in this technology, if everything they write up is blasted over by lines to Chinese fireworks sites or blathered with casnio links.

    And again, it re-iterates my primary point- the wikis work to perfection; it’s human users do not.

  • David Miller davidjmiller.org

    The questions about whether wikis are flawed or whether email is flawed reminded me of another example of this same question being asked. “Is trackback inherantly flawed?” Again he question comes because of spam (as you well know) but it seems to me that it is the same question.
    As in all the other cases it is the flawed aspects of human nature that are the root cause. If we could address that we might not have to ask if the technology is flawed in doing exactly what it was designed to do.

  • Stephen Downes downes.ca

    Getting the facts wrong is one issue. Spamming is another. These issues should not be confused. Nobody is denying that human communities can be subject to mechanized attack, which is what spam essentially amounts to. But protection from spam is distinct from setting up some sort of management process in order to make sure that a wiki gets its facts right.

  • Will Thalheimer willatworklearning.com

    Yo Alan, isn’t it a little inconsistent for you to express so much hostility for those of us who choose, in a wiki-like fashion, to add our commentary about wiki’s to the internet? LAUGH.

    I agree with you that we should be skeptical of complainers, but we should be skeptical of all things, right?, even complainers who complain of complainers?

    In your follow-up comment, where you said that “wiki’s work to perfection, it’s human users do not,” I am reminded that guns don’t kill people, bullets do. We need to remember that ballistic processes, including wiki’s, may have distant consequences. Once some idiot fires off the wrong information, it may go on and on until it hits flesh and blood.

    I’m flattered you came around grudgingly to seeing my recommendations as “salient and worthy.” SMILE.

    I think Stephen Downes comments are valuable, but generally not workable. Experts certainly do have blind spots (Stephen may have pointed out one of mine). But don’t the masses have blind spots as well?

    And let’s remember, we can’t assume that the world’s foremost expert is even involved in our wiki, let alone that their wisdom rises to the top.

    Perhaps we need to categorize different types of knowledge. Some will be more appropriate for wikization than others.

    Here’s a thought question for you. Suppose you get to choose where to find information, from:

    A. An Open Wiki (with “who knows” as contributors, 100 million wikiers)
    B. A Closed Wiki (with non-experts, 100 thousand wikiers)
    C. A Closed Wiki (with experts, 1000 wikiers)
    D. A Closed Wiki (with the top 50 experts, 50 wikiers)
    E. Face-to-face Conversation (with the top 50 experts)
    F. Face-to-face Conversation (with the top 5 experts)

    Now, here are the issues you want to know more about:

    1. Helping your daughter who is sick with cancer.
    2. Determining who was the better guitar player, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page.
    3. Generating hypotheses to test later.
    4. Determining when wiki’s are appropriate and when they’re not.
    5. Brainstorming to develop a more effective marketing plan.
    6. Voting for President of the United States.
    7. Getting advice on what stocks to buy.
    8. Getting recommendations on which college to attend.
    9. Wanting to know whether asians are smarter than latinos.
    10. Determining whether there really is a war on Christmas.
    11. Coming to a decision.
    12. Creating a list of top five alternatives.
    13. Wanting to know how to get a personal meeting with Bill Gates.
    14. Needing advice on how to help your marriage.
    15. Wanting to know how to create a road-side bomb.

    Here’s what I learned by doing the thought experiment:

    1. Sometimes I will want the bigger wiki’s, sometimes I will want the smaller wiki’s. Many times I will want conversations.

    2. For my most critical information-gathering needs, I would rather have experts than the uncertainties inherent in the open wiki.

    3. When I compare D and E (the top 50 people in a wiki, and the same people in a face-to-face conversation), I will choose the conversation most of the time, because I know I’ll have the attention of the best people.

    4. In thinking about choosing the President, it occurs to me that the value of the information can’t be the only criterion for all our wiki discussions. Giving people input is valuable in and of itself sometimes. Yes, there are costs as we see today, but on balance we’re looking for a “more perfect union.”

    There’s more nuggets of course, but I gotta run.

    Okay, one more thought. Don’t the best experts regularly “test” their ideas with the rest of us? Anyone who has ever taught will feel deeply in their gut what I’m talking about.

  • Will,

    I appreciate the long response. My “hostility” is just the fact that my blog (which is not a wiki or wiki like) is my own personal platform, and I prefer to demonstrate that its ok, and should eb encouraged, for people to have a place for opinions. I may need a disclaimer here that I bark more than I bite ;-)

    I liek your thought experiment, and need to think about it more deeply, but what I come away with si that there are no simple rules that apply to all scenarios of information needs and modes of getting the information. I have little faith in a categorization recipe that has as a main ingredient human behavior.

    And it underscores what I thought I was writing (and I guess was only clear to me) that you cannot paint wikis (or blogs, or people) with broad brush strokes of generalizations like, “Wikis are all bad because there are malicous lies in Wikipedia” or “Blogs must be banned because there are perverts that rid kids blogs”.

    cheers, smiles, and rainbows…

  • Stephen Downes downes.ca

    Will wrote, “I think Stephen Downes comments are valuable, but generally not workable. Experts certainly do have blind spots (Stephen may have pointed out one of mine). But don’t the masses have blind spots as well?”

    It’s pretty easy to assert that my comments offer an unworkable approach, but rather more difficult to actually show it.

    Indeed, on the whole, I can find many more instances of mismanagement by experts than my detractors will find of mismanagement by the masses (and particularly of masses that have not been tampered with via the manipulation of media and interaction).

    Will’s comment, from my perspective, comes off sounding something like, “Democracy is a nice idea, but it’s unworkable, because just as a dictator might get things wrong, so might a democracy.”

    My very point is, the masses are no more likely to have a blind spot than the experts, and indeed, are rather less likely to have such a blind spot, because the mass, unlike the expert, can approach a problem from multiple points of view.

    Will’s thought experiment is a nice retsatement of his own views (but we should not confuse it as being evidence for them). Off the cuff:

    “1. Sometimes I will want the bigger wiki’s, sometimes I will want the smaller wiki’s. Many times I will want conversations.”

    The assumption here seems to be, the smaller the (carefully selected) group, the more reliable the information. This assumption is, according to my proposition, exactly the opposite of what is the case.

    “2. For my most critical information-gathering needs, I would rather have experts than the uncertainties inherent in the open wiki.”

    Depending on a small group of experts is significantly more risky than depending on a large group. Just as Will argued, above, that “we can’t assume that the world’s foremost expert is even involved in our wiki,” well, we can’t assume they are in our small group either (and simple probability shows that they probably won’t be). How do you choose your experts? How do you recognize them? How do you understand what they are saying? You can’t just finesse the bulk of the process and then say, “I prefer the high-quality result”.

    It’s like in the 1800s. There were, indisputably, experts in medicine. Yet most people continued to be sold snake-oil and treated by quacks. This was because the mere existence of experts does not replace mass knowledge, doesn’t even come close.

    “3. When I compare D and E (the top 50 people in a wiki, and the same people in a face-to-face conversation), I will choose the conversation most of the time, because I know I’ll have the attention of the best people.”

    Perhaps, but would you trade a 10 minute conversation for a lifetime of wiki access? because you, after all, are not the only person in the world, and there is a limited number of experts (by stipulation, 50). Which means each expert must allocate his/her time over 100 million people (5 billion divided by 50). Assuming 40 years of 12-hour days (no weekends), the expert has roughly 10 million minutes, which means you get 10 of them. Unless you’ve rigged the game to deny someone access to their 10 minutes, in which case, they get nothing, not even the wiki.

    Ah, but the point is, of course, that the attention of the 50 best people is (disregarding the price) *better* than the wiki. But where is the evidence for this? If anything, the evidence suggests otherwise. Otherwise, we would simply select the 50 best people to run the country, and do away with Parliament, the 50 best people to run the economy, and do away with the stock market, the 50 best people to manage urban planning, and do away with real estate, and so on. We wouldn’t even need to play hockey games – just assemble 26 teams at the start of the year and have the panel of experts pick the winner.

    Of course, all this would be absurd. But it’s funny how often experts think that even though something is absurd in the general case, it is reliable in the particular case. Funny reasoning, that.

    “4. In thinking about choosing the President, it occurs to me that the value of the information can’t be the only criterion for all our wiki discussions. Giving people input is valuable in and of itself sometimes. Yes, there are costs as we see today, but on balance we’re looking for a “more perfect union.””

    Giving people input is of valuable only if it is meaningful. I say this as a veteran of many ‘consultations’ that were window dressing, and not genuine solicitations of opinion.

    The whole value of having a vote in a presidential election is that the aggregation of ones’ votes actually *does* elect a president, and by proxy, public policy (and indeed, it is people’s scepticism about this point that has resulted in voter apathy). The value is in the result, and the apparent value of the process in and of itself is only by virtue of its role in attaining the result.

    People would not contribute to a wiki if they were to determine that their participation does not result in the production of better knowledge. It is, in the main, their belief that they are making the wiki better that prompts them to contribute. The ‘more perfect union’ exists only if people make it so – it has no independent existence over and above the efforts people put into it – and that very fact is what motivates people to put in those efforts.

    To wrap up – I have yet to see an argument that does not beg the question that demonstrates the superiuor decision and information-making power of individual experts over the mass. This becomes especially apparent when we press the question a bit of what constitutes ‘an expert’ – the very existence of such a person is *itself* a manifestation of collective wisdom.

  • Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Smartwisemobcrowds gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=299

    […] I’m behind in blogging and reading, and not likely to catch up until my grades are in and the term is put to pasture. But Andy sent around a note to our division about Alan “Cog Dog” Levine’s latest post on wikis, and asked us not to miss the ensuing comments either. No time to write about it just now, but I’ve been mulling all this over (along with the whole “connectivism” content vs. node question) pretty fiercely lately, and the most recent bit of ferocity in my achin’ muller is this fascinating and provocative IT Conversations piece from James Surowieki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds. […]

  • Peter Houghton

    Just to say that reading the more recent posts, I had exactly the same thought that Gardner raises in the previous post. The discussion played out in respect of social software is very reminicent of the same debate which James Surowiecki describes in his thought provoking book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Specifically relevant to the debate in this blog is the incorrect impression that the best quality advice or information necessarily comes from a few experts. Suriwiecki explains that a consequence of the scale and diversity of large populations is that they tend to develop higher quality answers. This is not to say that all groups produce good answers as they patently do not. One of the most critical factors that dictates whether a group will produce high quality answers is the degree of independance of the members. Where group members become too aware of the views of others and are overly swayed by their opinions in making their response, then the result can be far from optimal. Therefore, to answer the question as to the likelihood of a particular Wiki containing quality material, it is in part dependent on the nature of the collective behaviour of the contributors. Thus the consequent question is perhaps how it might be possible to discern whether any particular subset of content has profited from good group behaviour or whether it is the result of the more malign forms of group behaviour.

  • Elaad Teuerstein socrateslogic.com

    “Helping your daughter who is sick with cancer… For my most critical information-gathering needs, I would rather have experts than the uncertainties inherent in the open wiki.”

    Will, it is rather risky basing your knowledge gathering on source only. In the above mentioned example you gave, experts will no doubtedly will be the primary source of information and advice, but it will never be complete.
    On the internet you may find experience of ordinary people with doctors, and extreme medical cases which the experts might not know of or neglect to mention as they are “highly improbable” (I won’t accuse them of having hidden agendas). This extra bit of knowledge might turn out to make a critical difference in this case or other.

    As mentioned, the wikis do what they were designed to and as such not flawed. We can all consider that the same is true for the human nature. Our nature was “selected” to survive if not thrive in the circumstances and culture we live in and have created.
    Given the human tendancy to find loopholes in restricting technology, maybe what will make a difference is codes of conduct accepted by communities. An example is the netiquette that has evolved as a meme on the internet.

    Keep on barkin’…

  • curtis aubry 5pillars.com/worldlink

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    Thank you Curtis