I’ve ensconsed myself in the Ames Court Room in preparation for Yochai Benkler’s talk at the Wikimania conference. I’m sitting in the back, just in front of the fireplace pictured here. The inscription reads “This is the polar opposite of the university you attended.” This room feels like it could be a set for the next Harry Potter movie, while my undergrad campus was used as a set for one of the Planet of the Apes films.
As I noted, I’m very bad at conference blogging. I’ll leave the transcripts to someone else, and Ethan Zuckerman is one of several keeping a nice account.
Yesterday, a theme kept popping up: how do we make Wikipedia the premier authoritative encyclopedia. There has been an emphasis on making it free, making it big, and making it good, perhaps in that order. From Wales’ opening talk and throughout the day, we kept returning to this idea of a stable version, and how to ensure quality.
The obvious answer to that is peer review, and while I have some confidence in the peers who write and edit for the Wikipedia, it is clear that the idea that “just anyone” can contribute does not mesh well with people’s idea of what an encyclopedia should be. They want real live Ph.D.s working on it. I noted that Ph.D.-dom is not a particularly great guarantee, as they hand them out like candy in some places, but that doesn’t change most people’s view of this as a sort of stamp of authority.
Wikipedia came about, in part, as a way of feeding raw materials to Nupedia, where they would be properly gone over by a bunch of those certified experts. Nupedia is defunct, but it seems like the idea is still worthy. Many note that the failure of Nupedia was that it moved too slow, but that’s not quite it. The reality is that it is never hit a critical mass of people needed to cover everything needed by an encyclopedia.
About a year and a half ago, I started chatting with some people about forking a stable copy of the Wikipedia. The process would be easy enough, given the licensing of the work. A little bit of reviewing software would be helpful, but easily glued together out of existing systems. The real issue is putting together an editorial board. It would need to consist of at least a few people who are “names” in a given field.
To start with, at least, I think it would be worthwhile to focus on a particular field. My natural inclination is to say that this should be one of the fields that I am more familiar with: internet studies, communication, sociology, education, or the like. The truth is, though, that Wikipedia is stronger in the sciences, and that there are more “open access” minded folks that are well known in physics, mathemtics, biology, and their subfields. Nonetheless, if I can model in a field where I may be able to bend some ears, it may act as a spur to those in the sciences.
Why not do this within Wikipedia? Several of the presentations pushed toward this, and it’s very well underway. But there isn’t a clear consensus of what should be done with this stable version. Some people are talking about presenting the stable version to users by default, but that seems to be a big mistake to me. There also continues to be, I think, a light anti-elitism among Wikipedians, which is in some ways well-earned.
But by clearly associating a “cut” of the encyclopedia with a set of academics willing to place their reputations behind the correctness of the text is, I think, a vital step for Wikipedia to take. There are a number of good solutions for this, but I think forming a field-specific, peer reviewed encyclopedia is the way to go. In all my spare time (yes, that is a joke–I’m having a hard enough time keeping up with what I am already committed to) I may try to gather together a bit of software to enable the peer review process. Then, perhaps a call out to the member of the Association of Internet Researchers to see if there are enough people willing to put in a little time reviewing or editing, and having their names associated with the project.