It’s official: Wikipedia has jumped on the social media bandwagon. The online encyclopedia recently announced the introduction of an article feedback tool currently being tested on 400 articles pertaining to the WikiProject on United States Public Policy. (Melanson, 23 September 2010). What are the potential consequences of the tool’s mass implementation? I will try to answer this question by briefly addressing emerging issues like the demise of expertise and user abuse. Before doing so, I will place this Wikipedia-related development in the broader context of the socialization of knowledge on the Web.
This process of socialization culminated on the 21st of April 2010, when Facebook announced – through CEO Mark Zuckerberg – its intention to become the ‘fabric of the web’ (Siegler, 21 April 2010) by launching a social plugin called Open Graph. The newly launched application gave users the possibility to integrate the protocol on their page and turn it into “the equivalent of a Facebook page” (Facebook, 2010). More importantly, users could also 'like' or ‘recommend’ news stories on CNN. A rating system was thus added to a type of content that is often considered to exhibit a relatively high degree of objectivity and a strong orientation towards neutral, factual information. It is hard to believe that such standards are maintained in light of some stories being more popular than others on social media platforms.
What does such a system mean for Wikipedia? Are there actually any standards to uphold? While the collaborative platform has been often condemned – especially in academic circles – for its lack of accuracy and substance, renowned intellectual Slavoj Zizek did not shy away from citing Wiki entries in his latest work, Living in the End Times. The confidence granted by the philosopher indicates a “significant cultural shift” (Lovink, 15 July 2010) towards seeing Wikipedia as a trustworthy source. While the numbers of active editors have been constantly dwindling, the dedication of a core group – in 2006, 73.4% of the total number of edits had been done by 2% of the users (Wales, in Swartz, 4 September 2006) – shows that knowledge for the sake of knowledge is possible and that expertise is present on Wikipedia. A rating system might make it all crumble and make the platform follow in the disappearing footsteps of the Directory, once a staple of the Google home page and now a ghost under the “more” tab.
Consider the common scenario of an ever-spreading practice: performing a search with the query ‘[topic or person of choice] + wiki’. Just finding the required entry might lead many users to give high ratings to the page; their lack of expertise in the field would entail gratitude for the mere existence of the needed information. Are then the ‘well-sourced’, “complete”, ‘neutral’ and ‘readable’ (please see image below) the new ‘like’ buttons of collective knowledge? The lack of criticality exhibited by Web 2.0 adepts never ceases to amaze: a quick glance at a Facebook news feed shows that content (such as links to articles) is liked within seconds of being posted, suggesting that the appreciative individual is judging it based on topic and not the ideas it comprises. This leads to the question of user abuse: will individuals arm themselves with the feedback tool to sabotage content?
In 2007, California Institute of Technology student Virgil Griffith created the WikiScanner site, capable of detecting IP addresses from which articles had been edited (Blakely, 16 August 2010). Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobile were among the business giants publicly shamed for tinkering with their own entries. With the advent of the feedback application, gaining prestige within the confines of Wikipedia and - subsequently search results, which are mainly based on the number of hits received by a page – becomes easier than ever. Now aware that IP addresses can be easily tracked, pointing the finger at the company headquarters, who can stop corporations from advising their employees to highly rate Wiki entries from the coziness of their own homes or from smart phone devices? Abuse thus becomes a matter of concern that should be taken into account by the feedback tool’s developers. It is not only through the artificial boosting of stars received that abuse may occur; as Wikipedia user Sage Ross astutely remarks, “non-experts may submit low-quality ratings” (Ross in Melanson, 23 September 2010). Therefore, abuse can happen unwittingly, because of ignorance or superficiality; a highly specialized and article might get low marks from a student with a poor understanding of the subject at hand, while mediocre content might be lifted in a similar manner.
Instead of concluding, I would like to further the debate by focusing on the very semantics of the article feedback tool and what each rating scheme refers to. Does ‘well-sourced’ mean citing scholarly pieces of top tier academic journals, articles of major broadsheets, well-known blogs of critical citizens or any information relevant to the particular topic? Does it simply have to do with the plurality of sources and perspectives listed in the entry? Can Wiki articles – especially those on “boundless controversies” such as global warming (Venturini, 2010) – ever be ‘complete’? Is ‘neutrality’ even an option in the competitive environment of companies looking for search engine visibility? As for an entry being ‘readable’, the same problem concerning deeply specialized content emerges, with bad players likely to blame the game.
Blakely, R. (16 August, 2010). Wal-Mart, CIA, ExxonMobil Changed Wikipedia Entries. Fox News. Retrieved 19 September, 2010 from http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,293389,00.html
Facebook (2010). Open Graph protocol. Retrieved 20 September, 2010 from http://developers.facebook.com/docs/opengraph
Lovink, G. (15 July, 2010). Dare to Quote! On Zizek and Wikipedia. Institute of Network Cultures. Retrieved September 20, 2010 from http://networkcultures.org/wpmu/cpov/lang/de/2010/07/15/dare-to-quote-on-zizek-and-wikipedia/
Melanson, M. (23 September, 2010). Wikipedia Introduces Article Feedback Tool. ReadWriteWeb. Retrieved 23 September, 2010 from http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/wikipedia_introduces_article_feedback_tool.php
Siegler, MG (21 April, 2010). I Think Facebook Just Seized Control Of The Internet. TechCrunch. Retrieved 19 September, 2010 from http://techcrunch.com/2010/04/21/facebook/
Swartz, A. (4 September 2006). Who Writes Wikipedia. Retrieved 20 September, 2010 from http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/whowriteswikipedia
Venturini, T. (2010b). Diving in Magma: How to Explore Controversies with Actor-Network Theory. Public Understanding of Science, 19(3), 258-273.