09 July 2006

Wiki Worries

The Project has been at some pains to explain that it is not a wikipedia, or anything to do with any wiki thing. Why? Is it really a matter of quality control, or just that control matters?

In e-newsletter No 2, June 2005 The Project had to explain to some poor souls who had foolishly imagined it to be “a kind of ’wikipedia’ for Sydney” that “this is a long way from our aim of producing a site that is carefully researched and trusted by its users”.

Wikipedia has two main faults they said: information is not authenticated, and other people can alter your writing. By contrast, the Dictionary will only contain entries that have been edited (presumably something more than making sure it conforms to the house style), and entries will only be altered after a “further transparent editing process”. The trouble with this neat dichotomy is that it doesn’t actually relate to the real Wikipedia, but sets up a straw Wikipedia.

Entries often have a good selection of references and further reading that function as an ‘authentication’ process by explicitly acknowledging both sources of information and a context for understanding the information. Entries can be edited by other readers, but the whole editing process can be followed through the ‘discussion’ and ‘edit’ tabs. Editing processes are often accompanied by informative debates that reveal the biases of the various contributors, which allows the reader to make their own decisions about reliability and believability of the current entry. Sure, Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but it isn’t necessary to set up a straw wikipedia to defend The Project - or is it?

The Guidelines for Contributors take another shot at Wikipedia: the Project “is not just a collection of disparate entries, as in the 'wiki' tradition ... Part of the challenge of developing any entry is to be clear about what the relevant linked articles might be”. Again, a straw Wikipedia is set up. Links between Wikipedia entries, and to external sites, are a central element of the wiki structure, and form part of its organising principle. The links between entries are multilateral, with chronological links being just one of many different ways of linking. There is nothing random or disparate about the real Wikipedia (see Wikipedia ‘wiki’ entry).

The real difference between The Project and Wikipedia is this: Wiki allows the reader to use and develop their own critical skills as part of the reading experience ; which stands in stark contrast to The Project’s traditional reliance on the reader being a passive consumer of their ‘authenticated’ information churned out of a centrally controlled ‘editing process’. Wikipedia uses an evolving software that allows a single contributor to be reader, editor, critic and writer - to be actively involved, a participant in a global, cosmopolitan, collaborative writing exercise - it is the opposite of the dumbing-down implied by The Project.

While seeming to be developing a new approach, The Project is still thinking ‘book’, with editors producing a single, agreed-upon version that is printed on paper, and then remains the same forever. It is a database approach that actively avoids the potential in wiki software and provides a means to ensure entries conform to a particular agreed-upon view of Sydney's history (and future). The straw Wikipedia is central to maintaining the illusion of objective editors producing authentic historical information: it is the historical chaos that The Project valiantly keeps at bay.

The Project fears the omen that wiki is: it portends the demise of authorised versions of our history - as it should!


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