Slate: 1, Wikipedia straw man: 0

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.

Does “crowdsourcing” work for investing?

TechCrunch has a post up about Wikinvest, a kind of “crowdsourced” investment encyclopedia, and how it has added a pile of interesting data about certain sectors such as airlines and so on — including revenue per available seat mile and other fun stuff (and yes, if you invest in airlines, that stuff had better be interesting). Coincidentally enough, I was just looking at Wikinvest.com earlier today, because I spotted the name on the list of panelists at Paul Kedrosky’s Money:Tech conference.

The first commenter on the TechCrunch post brings up one of the first things that jumped into my mind as well, namely: If investing consists of finding little-known metrics or tools or insights that you can use to spot trends or problem areas, how does it help you to have — or contribute to — a kind of encyclopedia that keeps track of all that kind of info? In other words, wouldn’t it make more sense to keep that kind of thing to yourself, rather than sharing it? If so, then you have to wonder who is going to be doing all the work of submitting stuff to Wikinvest.

In some ways, what Wikinvest seems to be trying to do is a little different than what Coinvestor.com or Cake Financial are doing. Like Motley Fool’s CAPS — which is quite well done, as far as investing-related social networks go — these sites capture your trading activity, your portfolio performance, etc. and let you talk about what you think about stocks. But Wikinvest requires you to actually help other investors by providing data that may or may be one of your special tools for assessing the worth of a particular sector, which is a whole different ball game.

That said, I like Wikinvest — it’s well designed, and I think it is a valuable effort. I’m just not sure how much of the data that gets contributed is going to be worthwhile. It almost seems like the more worthwhile it is, the less likely that someone will contribute it. On a somewhat related note, Michael Robertson — of Linspire.com and mp3tunes.com and dozens of other ventures too numerous to name — just launched a kind of encyclopedia for the VC business called Dealipedia.com.

Steve Jobs’ keynote leaked? Puh-leeze

A couple of sites — including Pocket Lint and Steve Rubel’s Micropersuasion — are running with the “news” that Steve Jobs’ keynote for Macworld has been leaked on Wikipedia. The only news is that anything with the word “Apple” in it becomes blog fodder leading up to the keynote, including old rumours.

The rumour about the Wikipedia leak is almost a week old now, having popped up on my friend Ian Betteridge’s blog Technovia on January 10 as well as a couple of other places. Same hauntingly plausible offerings — a 13-inch aluminum Macbook, YouTube for iTunes, etc. And the same widely-expected details such as an SDK for the iPhone.

Seriously, if someone was going to leak the keynote (assuming that would even happen), would they post it to a Wikipedia talk page? Why not send it to one of the many Apple sites? Some have argued that the ThinkSecret case made the regular rumour blogs too wary of printing Apple stuff, but I find that hard to believe. And one line in the keynote made my hoax antenna stand up: it says the DVD player on the Macbook “pops open when the eject button is pressed.” Don’t they all do that?

Wikia Search: Let’s give it a break

I’m generally in favour of bashing those who need to be bashed, and I definitely like taking the wind out of the Web 2.0 windbags (you know who you are), but I think the blogosphere is being a little hard on Wikia Search. Mike Arrington says that it’s a letdown, Allen Stern at Centernetworks
says it’s “not ready yet,” and Stan Schroeder of Frantic Industries comes right out and says that it sucks.

About the only person who’s being magnanimous (and can afford to be) is Google blogger Matt Cutts, who welcomes Wikia to the search business, although MG Siegler at ParisLemon says it actually looks pretty decent for something that’s in alpha. I’m inclined to give Jimmy Wales the benefit of the doubt on this one, but not because I’m one of those Wales sycophants that the always curmudgeonly Seth Finkelstein mentions.

As usual, something approaching what I think is a fair viewpoint emerges from the comments section of a blog — in this case, TechCrunch. Mike says that Wikia is disappointing, and in the comments Jimmy says that he warned everyone not to have high expectations about what it would look like, and notes that Wikipedia looked pretty rough in the early days too. That’s the problem with social anything — you can’t just pop out of the cake on day one with a built-in thriving community.

Is it just a bunch of links cobbled together by Nutch and Grub (names that sound like a couple of animated characters from a new Disney blockbuster)? Yes. It’s in alpha, for pete’s sake. For my part, I think I’m going to try and forget about Wikia Search for at least six months and then take a look around and see what’s there. If it’s still a ghost town, then maybe there will be something to get concerned about.

Is Google going after Wikipedia?

Via a Twitter post from MG Siegler at ParisLemon, I just came across a post on the Google Blog about a project the search giant is calling Knol, which stands for “a unit of knowledge,” apparently (who comes up with these goofy names?). I have to agree with the Lemon that this is potentially huge. What Google is describing sounds a lot like an expert version of Wikipedia, or essentially what estranged Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has been trying to create in Citizendium: in other words, a more reliable Wikipedia, created and moderated by experts.

There’s a screenshot of what a Knol would look like on a topic such as insomnia, and it includes all the information that someone coming to a topic would want to know, according to Google — in other words, pretty much the same stuff that Wikipedia (or Squidoo or Mahalo) would have in an article about the same topic. The only difference that I can see is that Wikipedia entries seem to have more links.

One of the biggest differences, as MG Siegler notes, is that the authors of the articles are featured, with photos and a profile page. In addition to the ability to comment on the article — and apparently adding information Wikipedia-style, according to the Google blog post — readers can see other articles written by the same writer, and the articles have a star rating that refers to “peer” reviews, which are also visible in the sidebar.

I think this could be huge. A more authoritative version of Wikipedia, compiled by experts and powered by Google? Not only that, but as Paul Kedrosky points out, the pages come with Google ads, and authors get a revenue share — he says (and I agree) that it could hurt not just Wikipedia but Mahalo and plenty of others, especially if those pages start to rank highly in Google searches. Like I said — huge.