Wikipedia and broken window syndrome

Several very highly qualified bloggers Mike of techdirt, Joi Ito, Cory Doctorow recently lambasted Al Fastoldt’s article where he says that a librarian said the Wikipedia is not authoritative and that it should not be used as a knowledge source.

Much more than a proof of concept, I think the wikipedia is fascinating as on the surface it does appear a very fragile way to generate knowledge. Allowing anyone, anywhere to edit and alter an article page on something or create new knowledge appropriate is a revolutionary idea and I can definitely see why a librarian would have a problem with this.

It flies in the face of traditional ideas of knowledge :

  1. The idea of authoritative knowledge and credentials
  2. The idea that knowledge that anyone can create or edit is fragile and therefore not resistant to misinformation
  3. A community inherently has more knowledge than a single expert
  4. Knowledge collaboratively created is trustworthy

In those respects the wikipedia is truly controversial. However, it is less resistant to vandalism than other forms of “authoritative” publishing except for the fact that the community creates a form of self-healing gestalt which prevents misinformation.

Every change made or entry added in wikipedia is logged so it is easy for community members to review, rolled back and otherwise rectify or mitigate altered material if there are glaring errors, extreme positions or information that is downright wrong, controversial or inflammatory. This is function of a strong community though.

Dan Gillmor talks about it in We the media:

Urban planners and criminologists talk about the “broken window” syndrome, said Ward Cunningham, who came up with the first Wiki software in the 1990s. If a neighborhood allows broken windows to stay that way, and fails to replace them, the neighborhood will deteriorate because vandals and other unsavory people will assume no one cares.

The clarification that needs to be made here is to recognize that it is not the wiki software which is robust in this respect, but the wikipedia community. Something I think most pundits have overlooked. If the community allowed broken windows to persist, the knowledge value of the wikipedia would break down also. The community makes it self healing and creates a stronger authoritative encyclopedia by encouraging competing viewpoints, reconciling them and presenting them as all equally authoritative.

I’m biased. I really do think Wikipedia is the bomb and one of the most innovative, useful and successful examples of open source knowledge out there. In fact, I fully intend experimenting with a similar concept at my next position. I also use wikipedia daily for reference and even use the wikipedia plug-in in Firefox which lets me query it directly from my browser search bar like Google for even faster access.