[Air-l] Jimmy Wales responds

Ken Friedman ken.friedman at bi.no
Tue Dec 6 08:33:04 PST 2005


One of our list members sent part of the thread to Jimmy Wales.
He sent a reply, with the request that it be posted to the list.

I post it here.

Since Jimmy does not belong to the list, please copy to him any
replies directed to him.


Hello, air-l!  I am Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and I'd like to
thank danah for pointing me to this discussion.

Ken Friedman wrote:
>  This letter is a suggestion that you address the problem of bad
>  information in student papers from an increasingly poor source:
>  Wikipedia. Wikipedia is not getting better. It is getting worse.

While I certainly do think that professors should educate students about
Wikipedia, and about how it is created, I must object to the idea that
"Wikipedia is not getting better.  It is getting worse."

That's a very specific empirical claim which is fairly easy to refute:
simply take a look at 100 random articles from Wikipedia, and see what
those articles looked like a year ago, two years ago, three years ago.
The level of increase in quality is dramatic across the board.

That isn't to say that Wikipedia is yet "ready for primetime" -- it
isn't.  But if you're going to say that Wikipedia is _getting worse_
instead of _getting better_, I'm going to ask you to prove it.

>>  There are now enough serious incidents of false and defamatory
>>  information in Wikipedia biographies to warrant prohibiting this as a
>>  reference source in universities and university-level professional
>>  schools. The same is true of inaccurate or false assertions in many
>>  articles.

I would say it a different way: Wikipedia (and Britannica) ought to have
been prohibited as a reference source in universities and
university-level professional schools all along.  This is what I tell
students who write to me whining that they got an "F" on their paper for
citing Wikipedia. :-)  But what I would say is that there are
encouraging signs that within another year or two, Wikipedia may have
finally reached a quality level such that it might become satisfactory
as a citable source in some cases.

>>  The problem with Wikipedia is not that the Wiki system MAY develop a
>>  solid and reliable reference work, but that in the current form, it
>>  DOES NOT. It is as easy to change an article for the worse as for the
>>  better.

Actually, it is quite difficult to make an article worse.  Yes, you can
do it for an instant, but the overall process is such that bad changes
tend to be reverted to older versions.  Since all past versions are kept
forever (except for those deleted for legal reasons of course) it is
trivial for the community to restore an article to it's former glory in
the event that some edit war leaves it in a worse state than before.

This is routine, and this is a core part of the Wiki process.

>  If enough of us prohibit Wikipedia as a reference source in our
>  courses, programs, and schools, the message will eventually get
>  through.

Of course there's a much easier and faster way to get a message through.
  You could just email me. :-)

We're very very eager to hear from researchers with good ideas for
improvement of our processes.  Our goal is quite simple: Britannica or
better quality.  Everything else is more or less secondary.

A lot of people assume that our current _process_ is our _end in
itself_.  That is not true.  Our current process is only the _means_ to
our _end_.  It has always been changing, with very careful tweaks and
alterations to preserve what works and eliminate what doesn't work.

That process will continue until I get what I want, and believe me, it
is not possible to out-elite me on what I consider to be accurate and
neutral information.

One of our most important community members put it this way the other
day: Wikipedia is now like the first early releases of Linux which made
it (barely) usable for the first time as the kernel of an operating
system.  As such, it was for the first time able to attract enough users
to build the processes to make it into the world-class kernel that it is

Realism about the current weaknesses of Wikipedia is critical, including
realism about how much better it has already gotten, and how eager the
Wikipedia community is to continue that trajectory of improvement.


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