The Finkelstein Paradox

Seth is a buddy of mine, but even he will have to admit this is funny.

Seth argues logically and genuinely that he shouldn’t be in Wikipedia.  The Guardian and many bloggers pick up the story.

As a result, Seth becomes even more famous, thereby damaging his argument that he isn’t notable enough to be included.

Rogers wonderfully dubs this the Finkelstein Paradox.

It’s Sunday morning, so let me quote some applicable scripture:

Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!

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Wikipedia, Arrington and the Search for Accuracy

Mike Arrington has a post over at Techcrunch in which he talks about the launch of Wikipedia competitor, Citizendium.  In this post, he is critical of Wikipedia for all sorts of things: political edits, attacking people who correct mistakes and errors in the Techcrunch listing.  I don’t know if Mike’s criticisms are accurate or not, because he doesn’t cite one specific example.  Merely his conclusions, which may be spot on or which may be akin to his conclusion that Nick Carr is an asshole.

It’s a little unsatisfying for someone to complain about political editing policies and factual inaccuracies without footnoting a single point.  It’s like saying “trust me, they are wrong when they say to trust them.”  If there are problems, and if Wikipedia needs to be fixed (as opposed to the unavoidable hiccups that occur with all truly collaborative products), then isn’t it more productive to detail them so they can be addressed, as opposed to just cheering on the competition?

About the competition.  I’d love to hear Jimmy Wales‘ perspective on the reasons leading up to the pending launch of Citizendum.  Maybe it’s all about spreading knowledge.  Or maybe it’s about the exciting and innovative funding model referenced in the FAQ.  What I really want is the one thing I’ll probably never get: transparency in motives and collaboration without exploitation or opportunism.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not crapping on Citizendium.  At least not yet.  I don’t know enough about its origins, purposes and plans.

I am bothered by the idea that certain people will have greater control over topics, because that approach carries with it the prime question: who decides who decides.  Unless you can answer that question up-front and honestly, creating a hierarchy is merely replacing one problem with another one.  Only without the checks and balances that can mitigate the first problem.

Additionally, I know that when a collaborative process splits into parts, the sum of the parts is often less than a properly managed whole.  And I know that sometimes the split is about things other than a desire for harmony and accuracy.

Wikipedia is not perfect.  But it is probably the most useful of all of the Web 2.0 applications.  Rather than split into competing tribes, I wish all the chiefs could figure out a way to work for the greater good.

I can’t put my finger on it yet, but I have a hunch that’s not what’s happening here.

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Seth Finkelstein Says No Thanks

Seth Finkelstein says he does not want a Wikipedia entry.

Which is probably a good indicator that he is entitled to one. In this day and age when so many people are trying everything to get a Wikipedia entry- from ghost writing for a friend to actually writing their own entry, Seth says no thanks.

I missed all of the debate about Seth’s entry- which is a good thing for him because I’m afraid I would have been on the other side of the argument. But then, as I have made clear in more than a few recent post, I am a Wikipedia believer.

I have also read Seth’s blog since the first day I entered the blogosphere and he is a frequent Commenter here. I have always been amazed, and a little envious, of his ability to stay focused and on point. His blog posts and Comments are among my favorite reading.

More importantly, he is one of the most effective watchdogs and critics of censorware. As pointed out in the very Wikipedia entry he doesn’t want, he received the EFF Pioneer Award for his contributions “to decrypt and expose to public scrutiny the secret contents of the most popular censorware blacklists“. As Newsome.Org is blocked by some censorware applications, I have personal experience with being censored.

If Seth wants out, at the end of the day I would support him as a friend. But when it comes to notable and worthy of inclusion, he is clearly on the in side and not the out side.

Wikipedia and the Deadest Guy in the Room

Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post has an article today examining Wikipedia and using the running of the historiographers at Wikipedia following the death of Ken Lay as a object lesson.

The article cites the evolving Wikipedia content that mirrored the content of office conversations everywhere after the news of Lay’s death broke. The cause of death went from suicide to unknown to heart attack. There’s not a person out there, whether online at Wikipedia or curled up in a chair reading their Encyclopedia Britannica, who didn’t wonder if he’d killed himself when they first heard the news. Yes, it’s a little morbid to wonder about such things, but when you live the unspigoted life Lay did and then get convicted on an OJ-like stage, it comes with the territory.

Many people, including me, still think the timing of Lay’s death is a little curious, to say the least. But that’s not the point.

The fact is that as far as we know, he died of a heart attack.

Frank outlines the evolution of Lay’s Wikipedia entry in the hours after the news broke- as the cause of death went from suicide to unknown to heart attack. And he mentions some questionable additions made by the very people I wrote about before (in a post Commented upon by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales), who really should be reading encyclopedias and not writing them.

In the article, Frank writes:

“But here’s the dread fear with Wikipedia: It combines the global reach and authoritative bearing of an Internet encyclopedia with the worst elements of radicalized bloggers. You step into a blog, you know what you’re getting. But if you search an encyclopedia, it’s fair to expect something else. Actual facts, say. At its worst, Wikipedia is an active deception, a powerful piece of agitprop, not information.”

While I agree that the immediacy of Wikipedia will necessarily result in some inaccuracies from time to time, particularly with respect to highly controversial matters and breaking news, I would make two points about that.

First, Wikipedia is not Encyclopedia Britannica, and I don’t think it should be compared to a traditional encyclopedia. It is the flat earth alternative, the way blogs are supposed to be the flat earth alternative to the New York Times. They cover similar topics, but the process is different and so the product is different too. Rather than written by a bunch of alleged scholars to be sold to users, Wikipedia is written by users for users. I’m all for scholars, but Andrew Keen spends a lot of time telling us he’s a scholar, and I’d rather read first grade book reports than the arrogant drivel that emanates from his pen- big words or not.

Second, and more importantly, the Wikipedia system worked. Yes, the entry was wrong at first. That is the price you pay for not having to wait and year and pay a fortune to read about it in the next edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. But it was fixed- and quickly. The collective brains of the “amateurish citizens” as Keen calls us are greater than the brain of an entry-level scholar writing for profit.

Wikipedia isn’t perfect. But this time it worked. Just the way it is supposed to.


Who Decides Who Decides: The Wikipedia Problem Explored

I have been reading with interest the recent discussion about Wikipedia, that great collaborative, free, online and hopefully accurate, encyclopedia. Let me begin by saying that I use Wikipedia all the time and that I think the idea of a collaborative encyclopedia is a great idea- in theory and, perhaps, in practice.


The recent discussion revolves around the issue of editorial checks and balances.

I am convinced the issues arise out of differing views of the meaning of collaboration. You see, when you agree to collaborate, you must collaborate. Which means that, in theory, everyone is free to add to and edit entries on topics that, presumably, they know something about. Some people, however, seem to be taking the term collaborate a bit too literally, thinking that any restriction on a user’s desire to have his or her way with an entry taints the process and constitutes some sort of undesired censorship. This is wrong, and here’s why.

In any online collaborative venture, be it an encyclopedia, a message board or blog comments, there are several kinds of potential content providers:

First and best, there are the knowledgeable and helpful people who try to play by the rules and make an effort to be objective. Objective matters not on a message board which, by design, is to be filled with opinions. It matters greatly when the goal is a shared resource. Even subconsciously, opinion and emotion often creep into writing disguised as facts. There must be some checks and balances, other than the emotional reactions of those who emotionally disagree, to preserve the required amount of objectivity.

So even with people who are trying to play fair, there is a need for oversight.

Then there are the people who don’t know what they don’t know. On a blog, I can talk about politics, curling, why I like David Gilmour better that Steve Gillmor, and anything else I want ramble on about- and if it turns out that I am foolish, wrong or mistaken, my readers will simply vote with their subscription buttons. But if I decide all of the sudden that I am an expert on curling, am I really the right guy to rewrite the Wikipedia page on curling? Of course not.

So again, there must be checks and balances in case people start believing they know more than they do.

Then there are the people who have genuine but differing opinions of how a site should be run. The best example of this at Wikipedia are the people who either enter or edit entries about themselves. If unchecked, everybody and their dog would have an entry. On the other hand if you see something about yourself that is factually incorrect, why shouldn’t you be able to correct it. Again, checks and balances are needed. (As an aside, while I read and like Fred’s blog, Wikipedia is not limited to online or VC matters, so if Fred is suitable for an entry, so are a ton of other educators, business persons, doctors, lawyers, firemen, soldiers etc. who do a lot of good here in the real world).

Finally, there are the troublemakers. I remember the night Mike Arrington posted about a test chat room that had been set up by 3Bubbles to show their new chat application. I wondered over to check it out, and the signal to noise ration was beyond horrible thanks to quite a few chatters who were there purely to disrupt things and create chaos. I can tell you from vast experience developing and operating interactive web sites that disrupters and troublemakers are a constant problem that require constant diligence. Left unchecked, the vandalism that Jimmy Wales calls “a minimal problem, a dull roar in the background,” would eventually overwhelm the legitimate content the way unpulled weeds will overwhelm a yard.

The New York Times article sums up the Wikipedia problem nicely:

“At its core, Wikipedia is not just a reference work but also an online community that has built itself a bureaucracy of sorts- one that, in response to well-publicized problems with some entries, has recently grown more elaborate. It has a clear power structure that gives volunteer administrators the authority to exercise editorial control, delete unsuitable articles and protect those that are vulnerable to vandalism.”


“While these measures may appear to undermine the site’s democratic principles, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, notes that protection is usually temporary and affects a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million entries on the English-language site.”

All of which leads me to my conclusion.

We shouldn’t be worried about the fact that someone gets to decide what is acceptable at Wikipedia. Instead, we should focus on who decides who decides what is acceptable at Wikipedia.

As long as there is built-in fairness to the answer to that question, the other problems, both from an inclusive and an exclusive perspective, will take care of themselves.

In fact, when people argue about limitations of any kind, they are often not arguing about the limitation so much as they are about who controls the limitation. If we focus narrowly on the real problem at hand, it is easier to understand the problem and to craft a solution that work for everyone.

It’s all about the correct checks and balances.


Triangulating Through the Crowds

Stephen Bainbridge has a post about crowds and experts. He wonders if there has been a study on whether prediction markets limited to experts in the field do better than prediction markets open to any and all comers.

Here’s my, umm…, prediction: individually, the experts would do better, but the conventional wisdom of the all comers group would outperform most of the individual experts.

Christine Hurt follows up on that thought in the context of the Battle of the Encyclopedia Britannicas and the Wikipedias.

The answer, as far as I am concerned, is that crowds do fine as long as you remember to trust, verify and triangulate. That post by Jim McGee, which I have linked to before, is a compelling argument, at least to me, for the benefits of multiple data points.

And in the blogosphere, multiple data points requires a crowd.