The Truth According To Wikipedia

Before the official closing of The Next Web Conference 2008, we were shown the premier of the new documentary “The Truth According To Wikipedia”. IMDB page suggests that the film is post-production and the director, who was present at the conference and had a few words to say before the premier, noted that he finished editing of the movie just that morning.

Boris, one of the conference organizers, had this to say in one of his recent blog posts:

The video led to heated debate between the maker of the documentary and some of the audience members and even during the party afterwards people where still discussing the video. […] The questions it raises are far from answered […]

Note that as organizer Boris has to be nice to people, so that they won’t be too afraid of showing up next year.

I, on the other hand, can say whatever I want and feel like. And here is how I feel about the movie – it sucked. Not to offend organizers for showing it, but they probably haven’t seen it themselves before it was premiered.

Purely from the movie purpose of view – it was boring. It hadn’t much pace or depth and it wasn’t packed with information either, so I was struggling not to fall asleep most of the time. From the documentary point of view it was very weak. The interviews in the movie were vaguely connected, presenting only two view points on the situation. And there weren’t enough numbers and references to support either side. And the whole argument looked like a semi-heated discussion on something somewhat important between a couple of somehow famous guys. Anybody who ever participated in any forum or have been subscribed to any mailing list for longer than three month is familiar with the type of the discussion. Not trolling yet, but pretty close.

Now, to the point of the argument. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia where everyone and anyone can add, edit, or delete content. There is no way to establish credentials of any contributor and there is no way to identify experts. Nobody is responsible for the accuracy of the information. And so on and so forth.

As I said before, there are two sides of the argument in the film. One side suggests that people are good by nature and given some guidelines will improve things constantly. The other side suggests that in order to contribute something, someone should be “an established expert in the field” (whatever that means), and by such the information contributed will be more accurate and trustworthy.

Can you guess which side I am on? You probably can. I am all for wisdom of the crowds. I do believe that wisdom of the crowds is very much like meat – it’s nice and all, but it needs some cooking to taste its best. So, just opening Wikipedia for everyone and everything will degrade its quality. Gladly, as open as Wikipedia is, there is a certain level of control to rule abusers out. I think Wikipedia has just enough.

How do we know if information in Wikipedia is accurate and trustworthy? We don’t. Human history has been through enough discovery iterations to prove that things people believe in change. As do things proven by our own science. As one of our professors in the college used to say: “There are no absolutes. Only vodka.”

Ask any expert out there if they were ever proven wrong. If they say they weren’t, either they lied or they aren’t experts. Now, if you still want to go deeper into this then think about how do you distinguish an expert from a non-expert. Degrees? Certificates? Years of experience in the field? Recommendations of other experts? A combination of these? How well does your criteria apply to different areas of human life? Can you still find experts in such subjects as Philately and Dog training? If so, how many languages do those experts speak? After all, you will need to verify the translations too, won’t you?

Do you want to continue? If so, try to remember a few experts that you talked to. On any subject. One thing that I often come across is that experts are some of the most difficult people to understand. They usually know their subject inside out and can freely manipulate it back and forth and side to side. They also often use plenty of terminology. So if I’d ask an expert to explain me the subject matter, I’d often be better of with a non-expert book which will know how to assume that readers don’t know much just yet. Nice touch to Wikipedia is that experts can actually share the knowledge while less knowledgeable people can edit it into a plainer text, available to the rest of the world’s understanding.

So, yes, I believe that knowledge bases should be as open as possible. Anyone (or almost anyone – minus the abusers) should have full access. People should contribute to knowledge bases as much as they can – be that original, high level knowledge, or editing of the form, or fixing typing mistakes, or providing references and supplementary materials, or anything else. There is no way to know for sure if any article or page or fact is trustworthy. But anyone can establish that for themselves. If you don’t trust a piece of information – don’t use it. If you doubt something – check, double check, and cross check. If you notice an error or just know better – contribute your knowledge. This way we’ll have the most updated, most accurate, most cross-references, and most easily explained knowledge gathered and organized.

Oh, and if you are to make a movie about a popular phenomena, at least do your home work. Study as many different views as possible. Bring in as many people as possible. And look at history, numbers, and trends. That should put you on a right track.

Update: There is also a discussion about the movie over at TechCrunch.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Tomorrow morning I am leaving for The Next Web Conference, which will take place in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  I spent a few minutes in Wikipedia, reading about both Amsterdam and Netherlands.  Here are some interesting highlights (direct quotes from Wikipedia):

  • The Netherlands is often called Holland. This is formally incorrect as North and South Holland in the western Netherlands are only two of the country’s twelve provinces. As a matter of fact, many Dutch people colloquially use Holland as a synecdoche, being well aware of the widespread use of this name.
  • The Netherlands is also one of the most densely cabled countries in the world; its internet connection rate is 87.8%, the 2nd highest in the world.
  • A remarkable aspect of the Netherlands is its flatness.
  • The people of the Netherlands are amongst the tallest in the world, with an average height of about 1.85 m (6 ft 0.8 in) for adult males and 1.68 m (5 ft 6 in) for adult females.
  • There is a tradition of learning foreign languages in the Netherlands: about 70% of the total population have good knowledge of English, 55– 59% of German and 19% of French.
  • Amsterdam is the 5th busiest tourist destination in Europe with more than 4.2 million international visitors. The room occupation rate is the 2nd highest in Europe in 2007. Tourists can choose from 350 Hotels, 17 of which are fivestar hotels. 18,000 rooms and almost 45,000 beds are provided.
  • Amsterdam’s largest religious group are the Calvinists followed by Islam, mainly Sunni Islam.
  • Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world and is a centre of bicycle culture with good provision for cyclists such as bike paths and bike racks, which are ubiquitous throughout the city. There are an estimated one million bicycles in the city (total population is 742,884 people, as per January 1st, 2006). However, bike theft is common, so cyclists use large secure locks.

    Google Sites – another tool to wait for

    Some time ago Google acquired JotSpot – a wiki-like web service. There weren’t much news about it since then though. It was obvious that JotSpot will join Google’s office applications in one form or another. But details and time lines weren’t clear. Slashdot runs a follow-up post, saying that JotSpot will replace Google Pages tool. It will be called Google Sites. Here is a relevant quote:

    Based on JotSpot collaboration tools, Sites will allow business to set up intranets, project management tracking, customer extranets, and any number of custom sites based on multi-user collaboration.

    Obviously, this is something to wait for. There is a demand for a tool like this among small companies, and existing solutions could use a little competitive push.

    Update: More details about Google Apps plans for 2008 at this Techcrunch post.

    Traces of digital revolution

    The digital world is upon us.  Everybody knows it and nobody ever argues with it anymore.  But that’s too general.  What is actually changing?  What are the specific examples?   Today I came across one, while catching up with Slashdot news.  Here is a quote from the post:

     “An inspired professor at University of Washington-Bothell, Martha Groom, made an interesting pedagogical experiment. Instead of vilifying Wikipedia as some academics are prone to do, she assigned the students enrolled in her environmental history course to contribute articles. The result has proven “transformative” to her students. They were no longer spending their time writing for one reader, says Groom, but were doing work of consequence in a “peer reviewed” environment, which enhanced the quality of their output.”

    If you read through the comments to the post, there are many insightful thoughts too.  Here is one of those that I liked (apart from the age criteria):

    Wikipedia should be output, not input, for students past a certain age. It gets them used to writing for real people as opposed to just for getting graded, it gives them the experience of having their writing edited by people of varying abilities, and it gives them motivation for doing research. Another, easier, option would be to assign students to correct Wikipedia articles.

    Another comment mentions that this is not by far the first time that this happens.  It conveniently links to the page with more examples of school and university projects.

    Three things to like about WikiMapia

    Here are three things that I like about WikiMapia :

    1.  It’s brings together the excellence of Google Maps and the social power of Wiki.  The results are better than anywhere else.  Even Cyprus, which usually gets little attention on the web, is covered pretty good.
    2. It’s easy to add landmarks and notes.  That’s something I really missed so far on Google Maps, where I can just see maps and search for geographical locations.  With WikiMapia, I can find something, mark it down with the notes, and then send the link to somebody else.  I won’t need to provide the instructions like “find two major roads crossing at the bottom of this map and then follow the one that goes up until second turn on the right. You’ll see a sort of triangular white building.  That’s our office” any more.  Just a link.
    3. WikiMapia pages score pretty good in  Google search results (I hope it doesn’t sound like invitation to spammers).  To find map to our offices now all I need to do is search for brief company name – “mmvirtual“.  The map link is the second result after our own web site.

    Wikipedia, here I come!

    I should probably check my referrer logs more often. A lot of interesting stuff goes on in there. Most fun are, of course, Google search phrases that bring people to my blog. But today something even more interesting was discovered. I made it into Wikipedia – the world’s largest free encyclopedia. I know that anyone can edit pages there and add a link to their own website, but trust me – I didn’t.

    Someone has linked to my 220,000+ domain ideas from Domain hack page (scroll the page down to ‘External links’).

    New Cyprus resource – kipr.info

    There is yet another promising resource about Cyprus – kipr.info. It started off as collection of information and links about Cyprus. Currently, everything seems to be in Russian, but maybe later some English content will be added. The good thing is that the site is using DokuWiki engine, which means that everyone can register, login and update any available information and add some new.

    Keep it bookmarked. And it has an RSS feed too.