The Anarchy of Truth

by Chris Kenton on January 25, 2007

There’s a big flap continuing over Microsoft’s attempt to hire someone to edit a Wikipedia article they felt was slanted against them. There’s a good overview of the debate at Bruceday.com, which I don’t want to rehash. The important point is that Wikipedia has become, rightfully or not, an important resource for information–not only the kind of dusty information that helps your kid write a report for school, but the kind of immediate and important information that affects business decisions and markets. To me, having read and contributed to the editing of the painful section on Marketing, the creation and vetting of that information seems like a sausage factory. I don’t see a lot of people digging into the implications of the whole Wikipedia experiment for Social Media, but it’s poignant.

The idea behind Wikipedia is that it serves as an encyclopedia written by ordinary unpaid people with an interest and expertise in a relevant topic and a Neutral Point of View, which among other things, is supposed to mean a lack of bias. That’s all very utopian and everything, but really, how many people with enough passion and expertise to provide authoritative and encyclopedic knowledge are also free from bias? My former business partner tells the story of a friend who spent his career as a librarian for Boeing, and who was blocked from editing articles on jet engines because he continually disagreed with the facts as presented by a designated editor.

The problem with Wikipedia is that eventually someone has to make up the rules that define how content is shaped into "fact". And to paraphrase an old saw, the reality with Wikipedia is that "Fact is determined by the rulemaker."

This, to me, is one of the defining challenges of social media. The whole point of social media is the democratization of content–differing points of view, differing beliefs and opinions, different versions of "truth"–all equally accepted as a counter measure to the controlling rules of a central authority. It works wonderfully when we’re dealing with politics, and culture–things we already accept as fluid and open to interpretation. But how does it work when it comes to things we want to be universal–like the facts you read in an encyclopedia?  I’m not saying it can’t work, but clearly Wikipedia’s rules aren’t working. 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tom Asacker January 26, 2007 at 5:11 am

Great post Chris. Thanks.

You wrote: “It works wonderfully when we’re dealing with politics, and culture–things we already accept as fluid and open to interpretation. But how does it work when it comes to things we want to be universal–like the facts you read in an encyclopedia?

Isn’t it *all* culture. Isn’t the *truth* nothing more than a group’s or subculture’s present understanding and acceptance of a premise; e.g. stomach ulcers are caused by acid used to be the truth, but no longer.

IMHO, we’d all benefit if we kept our beliefs fluid and open to interpretation and change.

Chris Kenton January 26, 2007 at 7:22 am

Hi Tom–

I wholeheartedly share your humble opinion. I think the challenge is when we try to colloborate to create consensus. It’s like language, we all have to agree at some level on the foundational meanings of words, or else we can’t communicate.

The problem with Wikidedia, to me, is that it’s a great collective filter for data, but not for distilling knowledge. Read through the section on Marketing. It’s awful for what’s supposed to be an encyclopedia. I have more confusion than understanding of marketing after reading it. To get a baseline understanding of the field, I would much rather have an entry written by Kotler’s paid staff of professional textbook editors, who arguably lack the “Neutral Point of View” so central to Wikipedia. Does that mean their version of marketing would be “truth”? No. But it would be a much more serviceable distillation of knowledge than I get from a flock of passionately disorganized information chefs.

/chris

Patricia January 26, 2007 at 3:35 pm

And many in academia agree:
http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/01/26/wiki

Sandra Ordonez, a spokeswoman (for Wikipedia), said in an e-mail interview: “Wikipedia is the ideal place to start your research and get a global picture of a topic, however, it is not an authoritative source. In fact, we recommend that students check the facts they find in Wikipedia against other sources.”

And I’m sure the students looking for a term paper shortcut really care…

Tom Asacker January 27, 2007 at 1:20 pm

Chris, I understand and, to a large extent, agree with your assessment. However, I do value its “global picture” in that it helps expose, and hopefully curb, cultural hegemony.

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