Wikipedia and Charity

Ethan Zuckerman (who is on the Wikimedia Advisory Board) has a post discussing Wikipedia's recent fundraising drive, with some comparative numbers:

In the past 17 days, the [Wikimedia] Foundation has raised over $478,000 in online gifts. That's a pretty amazing number, on the one hand, and a concerning one, on the other hand. If Global Voices could raise that much money online in a month, I'd be out of a job, as our annual budget is not much higher than that sum, and I spend far too much of my time convincing generous individuals, corporations and foundations to support our efforts.

On the other hand, it's significantly less money than my local public radio station raised in its last fundraising drive: $801,000. Those drives are less than a week long, and there are three a year, raising a large percentage of the station's annual income. Wikipedia reports the station's listenerbase at 400,000 - 5,874 (1.4%) of those listeners gave $136 each on average in the most recent drive alone.

(Put another way, they raised slightly more in the last 17 days than DonorsChoose did over the month of October...)

He goes through the per-reader numbers, and they're not pretty. He also goes on to speculate about why it is that the vast (and I do mean vast) majority of Wikipedia readers don't give anything, brining in Radiohead, Jane Siberrry, and that FreeRice site I linked here a while back. It's a really interesting post.

As for the Wikipedia issue, I think there are two things in play here, at least for me: First, there's not the same personal connection with Wikipedia that most people have with, say, a favorite radio station. I do look at Wikipedia on a fairly regular basis, but it's a drive-by sort of thing. I pop in because I'm looking for a particular fact, and then I leave again. I end up there only because they tend to rank highly on Google, but if some non-Wikipedia page came up first with the same information, I'd go there instead.

More importantly, though, I haven't given Wikipedia any money because I'm deeply ambivalent about the whole project.

Everybody reading this has undoubtedly seen a dozen different variants of the "officious little prick with too much free time edits reasonable Wikipedia articles into oblivion through simpleminded literal application of the notability and sourcing rules." Reading through a handful of edit wars certainly reduced my interest in taking part to zero. A lot of the physics articles are pretty sketchy, and the original article on the Davisson-Germer experiment was blatantly plagiarized from Hyperphysics (it's since been fixed, but is now just a stub), but if I'm going to spend time writing up lengthy articles explaining great experiments in physics, I'll do it here. I get paid for running this blog (not very much, but I get a monthly check), and nobody is going to turn up to complain that I didn't cite enough sources to meet some arbitrary standard.

It's not just a matter of disliking those particular rules, though, or not wanting to provide officious little pricks with too much free time a platform on which to exercise their officious prickishness. After all, if the goal was to deprive officious little pricks of an outlet, we'd need to shut down pretty much the entire Internet, and large swathes of the federal government.

The problem is a little more fundamental than that. In a recent blog discussion of a particularly silly edit war (which, of course, I can't find now-- it had to do with web comics), a Wikipedia editor argued passinately and completely correctly that they need to have the "notability" and sourcing requirements in there to keep Wikipedia from being completely overrun by kooks and cranks. Without some check on the sourcing of the articles, the site would be full of bald assertions of people's pet theories, and without some requirement of notability, every beloved pet cat would have its own Wikipedia page. They've got those rules for a reason, and they've gone for the simplest bright-line formulation they can, because as any lawyer will tell you, that minimizes problems with the applications of the rules.

The rules they have are absolutely necessary for their project. They inevitably lead to some drama around the edge cases, but if you want to run "a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit," you'll need those rules, or something like them.

The problem I have is with the whole goal of running "a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit." OK, I'm good with the "free" part, but the "anyone can edit" bit has always struck me as ultimately self-defeating, in pretty much exactly the way that Wikipedia goes wrong now.

The problem is that there's an inherent conflict in the goals of writing an ecyclopedia, and allowing anyone to edit it. Writing an encyclopedia requires expert knowledge of the subjects to be covered-- you need to know the topic well enough to know what the really essential elements are (because you're not going to be able to cover everything), and you need to be able to evaluate the claims made in different original sources.

The "anyone can edit" goal pretty much rules out any kind of credentialing, though. In fact, in every discussion of this that I've seen, Wikipedia editors take pains to explicitly reject the idea of requiring any sort of certification that the people writing articles have some expertise in the subject. The utopian goal is to have web-surfing teenagers on an equal footing with Nobel laureates when it comes to editing Wikipedia, at which point the state will wither away, and-- whoops, wrong utopian project.

The rules they have are there in an attempt to strike some sort of compromise between the fundamentally incompatible goals of ending up with an authoritative and accurate reference work while still allowing absolutely anyone to tweak it. In order to allow idiots to edit the encyclopedia without destroying it, you need to put some checks on the content in the form of rules that even idiots can understand. And when those rules are rigidly enforced by idiots, then, well, you get the sorry spectacle of Wikipedia edit wars. One of the effects of which is to keep people with actual expertise from wanting to have anything to do with the project.

So, as I say, I'm conflicted. I think that Wikipedia does about as good a job as can be done under the constraints that they have to operate with. As long as you're not looking at anything terribly controversial or ephemeral, the information is reasonably good-- most of the original articles were written by enthusiasts, and the edit rules keep them from being too horribly mangled. But I think the whole project is flawed at the conceptual level, so while it's nice that it's there, I'm not really motivated to contribute to it, financially or otherwise.

(Realistically, the chances of anybody doing a real hatchet job on an article about the Davisson-Germer experiment are pretty low, which is why a plagiarized article sat on the site for several months-- nobody looked all that closely at it, or they would've noticed the reference to a figure that wasn't there. The chance of any science article drawing enough attention to trigger edit wars has to be pretty small, but it's still a disincentive.)

More like this

But if it isn't free (as in speech) to write and edit, how is it free (as in beer) to read? There are plenty of other encyclopedias out there with credentialed authors and fact-checkers, and they all cost money to access.

I just want to say that it is silly that first-person sources (for articles about said person) is not good enough. Surely John Scalzi knows his birthdate, career facts, and other minutiae better than anyone else. (I'd link to his blog but I can't find the post; it was a while ago.)

By marciepooh (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Yeah, but John Scalzi also knows that his work is immensely successful because of its strong characterization and gripping plots. (Note: I know nothing about Scalzi; just using him as a generic example. Not accusing anybody!). I jest, but in all seriousness, if you let people edit their own bios--especially people who are more obscure--you will get a lot of self-promotion and glossing over of criticism. Obviously, this shuts out some valuable contributions, but on balance I think it's a necessary rule.

By Dan Miller (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

But if it isn't free (as in speech) to write and edit, how is it free (as in beer) to read? There are plenty of other encyclopedias out there with credentialed authors and fact-checkers, and they all cost money to access.

Well, as Ethan points out, they could sell ad space, but choose not to.

I just want to say that it is silly that first-person sources (for articles about said person) is not good enough. Surely John Scalzi knows his birthdate, career facts, and other minutiae better than anyone else. (I'd link to his blog but I can't find the post; it was a while ago.)

I think this is the relevant post.

Thanks Chad, I couldn't find the archives.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Another problem you didn't even mention is that rules at Wikipedia (especially for notability) aren't even enforced evenly across the board. Usually, it comes down to the decision of whatever editor is doing the reviewing, and their biases. Thus, one single person can decimate an entire subject in Wikipedia, if they have the influence and the desire. Add in the fact that there is no one that can fix this, since even if you know where to go to try, nothing has ever been done when a problem is brought to their attention.

Add in the fact as well that almost nothing on the internet counts as a reliable source that you can reference as well. Since there are entire subcultures that exist only on the net now, this can lead to significant problems and grudges.

By CaptainBooshi (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

"Everybody reading this has undoubtedly seen a dozen different variants of the "officious little prick with too much free time edits reasonable Wikipedia articles into oblivion through simpleminded literal application of the notability and sourcing rules.""
I think one of the larger problems is that the officious little pricks with too much free time who destroy articles aren't mere vandals, they're the administrators and others who run the site.

Could they sell enough ads to pay for enough fact-checkers and credentialed authors? And to stay as current? I honestly doubt it, if for no other reason than if it were possible, someone else would be doing it right now.
I mean, yes, obviously wikipedia has enormous problems in some respects. I wouldn't bet my life on the accuracy of the information it contains, and I can believe it's very frustrating for some users. It would be great if every article was written by an expert, and all the editors were neutral, and immediately recognised when you had a valid, informed, relevant opinion to express on a subject. It would also be great if they gave away ponies.
In the meantime, as long as you're aware of its (many) limitations, it's a very useful resource.

As a Wikipedia administrator ( ) I agree in parts and disagree in parts. First, I agree rigid application or Wikipedia policies and guidelines is a serious problem. Furthermore, CaptainBooshi (#6) is correct in that the policies are applied inconsistently and in some circumstances a single editor or group of editors can heavily damage an article.

That said, editors generally don't edit subjects that they really don't know about and if someone repeatedly edits a topic in a disruptive fashion that is connected to their ignorance or lack of understanding of an area, they will be asked to stop (or blocked if they continue). The process is imperfect, but it works for many articles. Take a look for example at which was written to a large extent by people with knowledge in the field.

Also, the complaint that content can be removed or altered at a moment's notice is somewhat valid but not as valid as one might think. For many subjects, attempts to remove content in a problematic fashion will be reverted in a matter of seconds or minutes. Furthermore, every article has a history tab so you can see what has been changed recently and by whom.

One final point, Wikipedia doesn't intend to be a reliable source and there's another reason that we insist on everything being sourced- so you can look up the sources yourself. Wikipedia articles are far better used when providing a very rough background and as a direction to other, more reliable sources.

Wikipedia can be helpful if one uses it responsibly.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

Sorry, a few other points I should have made in the last post. First, in regard to donating to the Wikimedia Foundation. First world countries aren't where this sort of thing is really helpful, but the non-English Wikipedia are doing wonders for supplying information to areas where there are few available academic or other resources in the native languages as well as supplying information to people who live under repressive regimes. There's a reason that Wikipedia is aperiodically blocked by mainland China, because it is a powerful source of information that the censors don't want people to have. The Foundation is doing so much more than just the English Wikipedia.

Second, there is another project which may interest you - . Veropedia is an attempt to take Wikipedia articles and have relevant academics go through and vet the articles. Once properly vetted, the articles then are kept in their unaltered state on Veropedia. They are a fairly new project and are looking for interested academics. So if you aren't a fan of Wikipedia, Veropedia is an excellent opportunity to help out and make a free, reliable source.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

One final point, Wikipedia doesn't intend to be a reliable source and there's another reason that we insist on everything being sourced- so you can look up the sources yourself.

See, this is what I find completely baffling. If you're not trying to be a reliable source, why the fetishization of encyclopediac style? If it's not really a reference work, then what does it matter if there are a whole bunch of articles about relatively insignificant webcomics? The notability criterion strongly suggests that Wikipedia wants to be seen as a Serious Reference Work.

And yet, if it's a Serious Reference Work, why do you give the power to edit articles to any jackass who wants it? There's a conflict here, it seems to me, and that's why I'm so ambivalent about the project.

I do agree that most of the concrete examples of problems are pretty much edge cases. The physics articles that I've looked at are generally pretty good. They've clearly been written and edited by people with some knowledge of the material, and while they're not necessarily broadly accessible (anything dealing with theoretical physics gets very mathematical very quickly), they're useful for the sort of quick fact checking that I use them for. And once I explain to students that Wikipedia is not a sufficient source of a research paper, the articles do steer them to the right place.

But there seems to be a fundamental conflict between the goals of the project, and that bother me.

The main reason we have a notability criterion is that Wikipedia cannot allow original research see otherwise articles will quickly deteriorate. If we will not allow original research, we must rely on secondary sources. Hence, the notability guideline.

To some extent, there is an attempt to be not what I would call a "Serious Referrence Work" but something closer to a "Useful Referrence Work" - just as one wouldn't use Encyclopedia Britannica beyond getting very basic background in something, so too with Wikipedia. Furthermore, there is a hope that even if there are a few problematic jackasses the pooled knowledge and assistance of many will outweight the jackasses in most cases. That generally seems to work. So I wouldn't say that there's a conflict between the goals so much as their being a tension between various goals.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 09 Nov 2007 #permalink

I'm in one of those fields which is not "terribly controversial or ephemeral" (biology), so my experience of Wikipedia has been overwhelmingly positive. In the sciences, I've noticed very few of the problems that have people so hot and bothered elsewhere, and the information is good enough at the basic level that I point students to it all the time. I've done a few infinitesimally significant edits myself, but that's sort of the whole point, isn't it? Who cares how minor it is? The point is that every minute (true) contribution adds to the total.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to say: Wikipedia as a whole is an absolutely mindboggling accomplishment. Ten years ago, it was barely there. Now you can look up practically anything, follow the sources, and learn as much or as little as you want. Ten years.

They worked on the Encyclopedia Britannica for decades, and it was, inevitably, out of date before it was printed. Wikipedia went from nothing to a huge worldwide resource in next to no time. That's the power of everyone freely contributing.

It would be stupid to lose sight of that power while getting annoyed over the failures.

And there are failures. Absolutely. But I'd be a lot less afraid that people were going to break this wonderful resource completely, if I saw more appreciation of the amazing accomplishments to date.

I'm not trying to say we shouldn't fix what is broken. We should. But let's not break what's fixed in the process!

As for how to fix it, here's my two cents. It comes down to a reliability problem. So the solution might be to update the academic reputation model for the internet world. That's already been proposed by others.

1) Have a ranking system for edits. People who make useful edits or edits that are moderated "up" by readers, go up in the rankings until their edits are accepted into the page without scrutiny. The opposite kind of people can't post an edit until it's been reviewed by others. The reviewers, a la Slashdot, could be a rotating pool of the readers of Wikipedia.

The idea is that one wants a system that avoids fossilized authorities and their orthodoxies, but prevents drivel from polluting the system. A distributed system of independent (ie not mutually influenced) evaluators would work quite well, if recent research on decision-making processes is any indication.

2) By including all current official Wikipedia admins and editors in this evaluation process, the officious pricks could be weeded out. Weeding out bad edits is a tiny problem compared to weeding out entrenched members of one's own peer group.

That's the power of everyone freely contributing.

No, that's the power of a few individuals deciding what can and cannot be contributed, and then enforcing those decisions.

If everyone freely contributed to Wikipedia, it would be almost mostly composed of shoutouts to friends, woo, and penis jpgs.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 10 Nov 2007 #permalink