Why Wired’s wiki won’t work

by Mathew on September 2, 2006 · 6 comments

I decided to wait a little while before writing about the article wiki that Wired News recently launched, because I wanted to give it a little time to breathe and see what kinds of things people chose to add, and whether that made the article (which is about wikis) better or worse — or just different. After looking at what Wired’s experiment has produced, I’ve come to the conclusion that the wiki process works really well for something like an encyclopedia, but not as well for a news article — just as it didn’t really work for editorials when the Los Angeles Times tried it. (Update: The New York Times has a piece on wikis as a business model).

I should point out that this isn’t just sour grapes from a member of the old media. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia — I just don’t think the wiki model works all that well for a regular news story like the one Wired started out with. Why? In part, I think it’s because allowing anyone to contribute produces too much material, in a way. It’s not that I think letting the riff-raff in makes everything dull and quotidian, as Nick “I Hate Wikipedia” Carr seems to feel. Not at all. But when I take a look at the current version of the Wired article and compare it to an earlier one, there is just too much stuff in there — in fact, it reads a little like an encyclopedia entry.

Contrary to what I think many readers believe news stories and pieces of journalism are not meant to be encyclopedic, or to cover every possible aspect of a story or event. They take some material from here and there, and hopefully they are fair, but by its nature journalism boils things down. Why? Because — not to put too fine a point on it — long, detail-filled, encyclopedic stories are boring. The current version of the Wired piece has lots more information about wikis, has more examples than the original had, and goes beyond the wiki to discuss the Foo Camp and Bar Camp communities, and even gets into Second Life (because it is like a 3D wiki, apparently).

It’s not that these things aren’t valuable or worthwhile — and in fact, the comments page, where contributors discuss with the writer different things he could have done, or people he could interviewed, is a great example of what working with “the people formerly known as the audience” (as Jay Rosen calls them) can produce. But putting all of that into the article doesn’t really make it a better story in my view. It makes it a better encyclopedia entry. That’s my two cents anyway. I’d be interested to see what others think of it.

Update:

Obviously someone else thought there was too much extraneous information introduced into the Wiki story — they moved much of it to this page, but that change has since been undone. Oh, and one other thing: the most current lede sentence is much worse than the original. “Wikipedia has hit the big time,” while not a fantastic lede, is much better than “Wikipedia has edited its way into the major league.” Aaron Swartz (who co-authored the RSS 1.0 spec when he was 14) also has a fascinating look into how Wikipedia operates here.

Update 2:

Kevin Makice, who has been contributing to the wiki story at Wired, has some worthwhile thoughts here. I would agree that personality — or something like that — is part of what seems to be missing.

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