It’s difficult, but I’m trying to avoid using the blog as a running commentary on my favorite 5by5 podcasts. I’ll indulge this time, though, because John Siracusa’s rant on what’s wrong with Wikipedia raises an illustration of a broader problem I’ll write about in an upcoming post on the freedom of speech. For now, I want to add something that I think Siracusa intuited but did not say. As always, it’s about the institution, not the rules per se.
The gist of the rant, which begins at about the hour mark of the podcast, is that Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion probe a fact’s verifiability, not truth value. If you know a fact, you are not permitted simply to assert the fact in a Wikipedia entry. If a fact is published in a “reliable source,” then you can write that fact in a Wikipedia entry. Siracusa points out the various ways that this approach and the other criteria, like notability, which are similarly biased towards appeals to authority rather than truth, undermine truth seeking.
What Siracusa did not say, but which I think he intuits, is why these rules are the wrong fit, institutionally, for Wikipedia. He argues, and I agree, that Wikipedia’s rules seem calculated to appeal to exactly the kinds of people, older school teachers and librarians, who now discount Wikipedia and forbid reliance on it even as they allow other tertiary sources like encyclopedia. Whether that was the intent, the rules do seem to replicate those of the encyclopedias that Wikipedia has, in fact, made obsolete.
The trouble is that verifiability criteria are a solution to the institutional problems of encyclopedia editorial boards. These problems are not those of the free-market-style collective that builds Wikipedia. Encyclopedia editorial boards were, of necessity, limited to a small-ish group of people. The challenge is to ensure that such boards are good agents of the readers, meaning dedicated to accuracy and free of undue bias. By restricting inclusion to information verifiable elsewhere, readers have a means to hold encyclopedia producers accountable. After all, the biggest danger in a disconnected world in which information comes to us from a small number of gatekeepers is that those gatekeepers will manipulate the information for their own selfish ends. Verifiability is a strategy to deliver the truth given the particular institutional structures that produced encyclopedias.
But that’s not Wikipedia’s problem, at least not to the same extent. Self-interested and misleading assertions need not stand unchallenged. The “marketplace of ideas” has a chance to work on the Internet to ferret out falsehoods that a cabal of editors might have been able to sneak through decades ago. Wikipedia’s difficulty is to govern the commons, to regulate an open market of speakers to produce a high quality result. For this institution, verifiability is perhaps the wrong strategy to deliver the truth.
This is not an argument that Wikipedia should lift all its restrictions and let the market work out what articles are included and what their contents are. Like other markets, speech markets can fail. But that’s the subject of a forthcoming post.