Slate: 1, Wikipedia straw man: 0

by Mathew on February 22, 2008 · 2 comments

Slate magazine has a piece up about Wikipedia, with the salacious subtitle “Digg, Wikipedia and the Myth of Web 2.0 Democracy” — a column that says it was written by editorial intern Chris Wilson, but might as well have been written by Andrew “I Hate The Internet” Keen, author of Cult of the Amateur and a man who never met a Web 2.0 service he couldn’t first misrepresent and then eviscerate. Chris puts his thesis in the lede:

“While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities,” he writes, “it’s a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.”

Why is it a mistake? Because, he says, the site has a small group of editors (gasp!) who control things, it uses “bots” to ensure that things look right, and most of the articles were written by 1 per cent of the site’s users, according to a widely-reported study. This is a little like complaining that airlines hoodwink us into thinking we can fly, when the truth is that it’s the airplane and the pilots that are doing the flying.

The existence of a so-called “power law” distribution or “long tail” effect in social relationships is older than I am (and that’s pretty old). As one commenter points out in Slate’s forum on the article, it’s hardly surprising that only a small group of people have the time, knowledge or resources to write in-depth articles for Wikipedia. Has the site ever said that all users contribute equally? Not as far as I know.

“Despite the fairy tales about the participatory culture of Web 2.0, direct democracy isn’t feasible at the scale on which these sites operate.”

Wilson also throws Digg into the mix, and hints that there are dark rumours about the existence of editors (gasp!) at the supposedly crowd-controlled service. Of course, Kevin Rose and Jay Adelson have said several times that there are editors who can block people or remove links, but it’s much more fun to imagine some kind of conspiracy a la The Da Vinci Code, with albino monks killing people and whatnot.

In fact, as another commenter on the Slate piece notes, the study Wilson quotes from shows that the number of users who contribute small changes to Wikipedia has been increasing for the past several years, and now outweighs the elite group. And he also notes that while 1 per cent of the users sounds like a small number, that’s still about 65,000 people. And yet, Wilson persists in referring to Wikipedia as an “oligarchy.” Nice job with that straw man, Chris — you totally kicked his ass.

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