ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wikipedia Criticism for Dummies in a Nutshell in 24 Hours or 21 Days Unleashed —

With my general articles, talks and whatnot about Wikipedia now in the two-years-old stage, I’ve had a lot of chance to get feedback and to go out and look up my name and find commentary about it. The ones that fell into the “read, comprehended, responded” approach often got mail from me. The ones that fell into the “appear to have read it while watching anime in the other window on the desktop” have generally been ignored by me, with a few exceptions that I’ll no doubt regret when I’m 40.

But beyond that, there’s a whole bunch of discussions where someone goes “Wikipedia, yay”, then someone goes “Wait, read Jason’s stuff” and then the first person goes ‘Ewww, words’. I sympathize with this, as I was once the same way. Granted, I was two, but regardless, I’m there with you. With a lot of stuff up on the internet in the form of long-winded articles, you have to invest a lot of time and at the end your head is swimming even if you sort of knew the subject. And the result of all that hard work might be that it sucks!

To that end, I’m putting in this article what I think are the five most common reactions/”debates” about Wikipedia I see, and that way in the future people can point to this article and then my other stuff if the pointed-out-for-them person in question says “tell me more”. Otherwise, they get the point and go.

When I use Wikipedia, I go to an article, read it, and it seems pretty on the money. I get the info, and go! It works! I don’t see what your problem is with it.

If you walk outside your room, stop three random people you’ve never talked to before, and ask them all the same question, chances are you will get some information from them as well. Luck, opportunity and the nature of your question will have an influence on this, but you’d be foolish to think the answer was definitive or adequate compared to primary sources or actual reference material. And the three people you asked (Three People-ia) would be deluding themselves if they were sure they’d be a definitive source on the subject, too. But on Wikipedia, this very thing happens, and happens often. I do not doubt that you will get a decent enough answer, especially if it’s general (who is buried in Grant’s Tomb, who wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) but you are relying on an enormous amount of luck and you are settling for the lowest common denominator. But hey, the Weekly World News sells hundreds of thousands of copies a week, so there you go.

Nature did a study in which they showed Wikipedia is less inaccurate than the Encyclopedia Britiannica! Look, I have a weblink and everything.

I wish people would stop quoting that study like it proves a whole lot. It looked at forty-two (42) articles out of a total of roughly 700,000 available, truncated articles on both sides to “anonymize” them, introduced errors of its own, won’t let people see the original data in full, and groups minor, major, and debatable errors together. Naturally, when Britannica pointed all this out in a three-month researched response, people went “of course they’re lying”, but then again, these are people who don’t read, like you, hence you’re reading this. Since you like to trust things, like Wikipedia, trust me: it’s a suck-ass study. Maybe someone will do a better one someday. But stop quoting that one.

It’s Just Wikipedia. People know what they’re getting, and I promise to take the result with a grain of salt and be very careful, and look both ways when I cross the street.

I applaud your good intentions, but it is now (August, 2006) to the point that Wikified information (and by that I mean pulped, blended, realigned and dessicated grab-bags of facts presented as pseudo-essays shot through ad-hoc committees) are now the first google hit for most proper and non-proper nouns, verbs, and are getting quoted without attribution everywhere. This is quite understandable, since the information is freely available and easily available besides. But now it’s showing up in school reports, websites like, and particularly unethical newspapers. So it’s not just a case of figuring out that Bamboo isn’t the capital of Maine; it’s that you will see Bamboo quoted as the capital of Maine more and more over time. Legislative decisions are being made based on Wikipedia articles. Medical decisions are being made based on Wikipedia articles. So it’s not “just” Wikipedia. That’s why I care enough to have written all I have.

Why do you hate Wikipedia so much and want it to be destroyed?

I don’t think any critic of Wikipedia wants it destroyed or to go away; that’s quite impossible at the moment. But there are policies, rules and design flaws in Wikipedia that could be changed and improve some of its worst bits, and over time it could go from wildly unpredictable to something that could be considered either reliable or dependably semi-reliable. Wikipedia has been doing this to itself over time, usually by top-down decisions that change its nature that cause a big uproar and then get accepted. And some of these changes came as a result of criticism. You’re welcome.

Even though I agree with you about what you say about Wikipedia, I just can’t stop using it! It’s so useful and really, at the end of the day, it gives me what I need! Why worry yourself over it that much?

I like people like you, because when I go to Las Vegas every year, I know that it was your hard-work and persistance to avoid ultimately accepting logical conclusions that make the lobbies so nice and give me free drinks while I play hold-em with my friends.

Dollar hold-em.

Categorised as: Uncategorized

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. Shii says:

    Wikipedia provides way more accurate information than just asking three people about something.

  2. Shii says:

    Actually, to follow up on that, it provides exactly as much information as 50,000 lazy people, some of them opinionated, trapped in a library.

  3. Kizzle says:

    The title makes me giggle.

  4. Stacia says:

    It’s a great summary. I think the most frustrating argument I’ve heard for the use of Wikipedia over actual sources is, “Some kids don’t have real encyclopedias and can’t get to a library. Wikipedia is better than nothing at all.”

    Right. Incorrect information is better than no information at all. We know this is true because someone on Usenet said so.

    Keep up the good fight.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Some very valid criticisms. I wonder what you would make of Everything2 ( Similar in certain ways to Wikipedia, but it doesn’t suffer from the problems like anonmous vandalism. However the system place produces it’s own problems…

  6. Jason Scott says:

    I think that everything2, which I remember being on in the beginning, also has problems, but at no point did it ever express itself as anything but a really fun project/geek toy/effort. The battles or lack of battles are therefore less problematic because the whole endeavor isn’t in the same vicious light.

    So I treat it like urbandictionary and other such group efforts.

  7. graeme says:

    What is amazing about wikipedia is that it has grown
    into a massive phenomenon. Almost anyone can contribute some knowledge – kind of ruffles the feathers of our indoctrination that all knowledge is sacrosanct and only authorized if it comes from some one with a Ph.D. Clearly it is filling a vacuum which must have grown quite large – there are deeper issues afoot imho.

  8. anonymous says:

    “it provides exactly as much information as 50,000 lazy people”

    No way. The average article on Wikipedia most certainly does not have 50,000 people checking it for factual errors and editing it.

  9. Lemi4 says:

    Larry Sanger: Toward a New Compendium of Knowledge

    Larry Sanger is forking Wikipedia. Among other interesting ideas he intends Citizendium to have subject matter experts; something along the lines of OSS-like ‘maintainers’ and ‘project leaders,’ I think.

  10. zenofeller says:

    i think there’s a fundamental point that got missed so far (at least by me).

    suppose a person contributes to wikipedia.

    you, and a great deal many other people, would refer to that as content creation. your rationale, explicit or otherwise, is that something that did not previously exist now does. that is creation. consequently, a few rules and practical observations apply to it just as well as to any instance of creation.

    for instance, that people should be allowed to finish their damned sentence. that their quirks be accomodated, if not downright revered. that their oppinions be protected from injunctions by extraneous criteria, such as popularity, voting and vetoing, etc.

    this is all right and good, this way of thinking is well supported by abundant record, and perfectly defensible.

    wikipedia however is based on two fundamental propositions, that are not explicit, and that are, once explicit, visibly incorrect.

    firstly, wikipedia proposes that the sum of all human knowledge is a sum of like parts. as a result, you can pick persay a correct color in which the human knowledge is to be recorded, and there won’t be any problems.

    of course there are going to be problems. and of course the immediate solution would be to hang said problems from the eiffel tower and pretend they go away.

    they won’t. human knowledge is not a sum of like parts. it is, necessarily, a sum of unlike parts, that are irreductible in their unlikeness, a point immediately familiar to anyone aquainted with, say, theory of knowledge, or the math behind systems design, or a good many other fields. heck, a bright pr person could come up with the observation.

    there is in fact not one single thing that can be said about “all knowledge” positively. we can’t even say if it will fit on a4 paper, or if a set of arbitrary characters, as long as finite no matter how long, will be sufficient to describe it.

    second, that making wikipedia entries out of knowledge is not creation, but moreover a sort of regurgitation. in a very platonician outlook, it’s not that something that didn’t previously exist now does. it’s that something that existed before all, an idea, forced itself into a new shape, through the slavish hands of some people. a rubber stamp left it’s impression on one more piece of paper. it’s not the hands that did it.

    this notion, of course, has been copiously commented and rebuffed for the past thousand years or so. it’s not suddenly become valid, even if it may seem so if regarded through particularly thick blindfolds.

    now, this divorce in between what you, and those people imagine when they hear about a “wiki” and what is in fact meant by the proponents has the massive disadvantage of not being immediately visible to you. it’s a sort of trap.

    but the fact remains wikipedia, as a project, is built on two major fallacies. they can’t be fixed, in any way, after the fact. if you set sail without a compass, there’s no ammount of procedure you can invent with regards to the proper scrubbing of decks that will point you north.

    consequently, wikipedia can not be fixed. it will be abandoned, like many other fallacious approaches have been. it won’t even take as much as the historical norm. hopefully no famine will result from it, and no spilled blod.

    but your hope to see some sort of fixing to keep it from spawning more and more idiocy in various second hand sources is futile. in fact, that a source of information is vulnerable to wiki contamination just shows it needs to be disposed of, much like unsecured-by-design systems had to be disposed of.

  11. IzzyW says:

    “What upsets me the most about Wikipedia is that it allows Google to be lazy. Google doesn’t have to worry that 50%-80% of their search results (and nine of the first ten!) are advertising links; they have Wikipedia to take up the slack.”

    I agree with that comment. Google supporting Wikipedia, added with the annoying traffic Wikipedia already gets, makes Google less reliable when you actually need good information. However, I’m guessing that’s what their Scholarly search is for – No Wikipedia.

  12. I agree with that comment. Google supporting Wikipedia, added with the annoying traffic Wikipedia already gets, makes Google less reliable when you actually need good information. However, I’m guessing that’s what their Scholarly search is for – No Wikipedia.