Cloud Street

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Greetings and salutations (and anomie)

I've started this blog as a place to collect my thoughts on user-centred ontologies, ethnoclassification, folksonomies, emergent semantics and so on. I'm looking at this area as part of a project for a repository of social science data sources at Manchester University. In my spare time I run another blog, Actually Existing; Chris at qwghlm has the rare distinction of being on the blogroll in both places. (Hi Chris!)

I wasn't going to post anything else, but what do you know. I've just spent half an hour composing a comment on this entry on Many-to-Many - or rather, a reply to this comment - only to find that comments were closed. Not that it says so anywhere on the page. H'mph. Oh well, their loss is our gain.

Larry Sanger wrote: "There is nothing magical about how Wikipedia does things; it is just one system. I have every confidence that another system will arise, probably quite soon, that will blow Wikipedia out of the water, in terms of quality, while being equally productive and nearly as open".

Does Wikipedia have a big (potentially insuperable) deficit? If so, what is it?

It seems to me that Wikipedia (or any collective, open repository) has two problems. One is enabling contributions to be challenged, debated and refined; the other is getting the articles to be written by, and the debates to be conducted among, people who know stuff ('actual philosophers' in Larry's example). As I understand it, Wikipedia does the first of these very well, but can't guarantee - and, more to the point, doesn't necessarily promote - the second. The ideal is that, thanks to the process of open debate, good stuff will go into the repository and stay there, while errors are weeded out, weak entries are improved and gaps are filled. It may take a while for some of the more obscure areas to get populated adequately, but we trust that more topic area experts will come on board over time. I wonder, firstly, if that's enough - whether the quality of Wikipedia is ever likely to be uniform, or (ware straw-man) near enough to uniform for the value of a Wikipedia citation to be fairly consistent.

Secondly, I wonder if there's a risk of mistaking the goal (a repository of near-enough uniform quality) for what exists (a highly uneven repository with a few local areas of uniformly high quality). In other words, even for those people who believe that the goal is realisable and the Wikipedia framework will ultimately allow it to be realised, it's important to bear in mind - and to make it known - that we're not there yet.

Thirdly, I wonder (having read Danah's comments and looked at the 'anomie' page discussed there) if the quality problem, in some areas, is more fundamental - if the problem isn't that Wikipedia's got ground to make up but that it's facing the wrong way. For what I'd want to know about a concept like that, that page is pretty dreadful. It veers wildly between essentialism (there is a thing called 'anomie' and we know what it is, across time and space) and nominalism (different people have used this combination of letters to mean different things, who knew?). What's not there is any sense of the history of the concept: it derives from a Greek word meaning [x] (if there was such a word - the wording is unclear); it was coined by Durkheim (or it already existed and was given more prominence - again, it's unclear); he used it to mean [y]; Hayek later got hold of it (from Durkheim? from the Greeks?) and used it to mean [z]; that's different from Durkheim's conceptualisation in this way and this way; and it's since entered common parlance, probably because of [well, how? I'm not sure].

I'm not saying this to slag off some Wikipedia contributors I don't even know. My point - or rather, my tentative suspicion - is that Wikipedia may actually lend itself to problems like these, by starting from the question "What does $FOO mean?" For any value of $FOO there are two easy ways to answer that question - essentialist ('here's what it really means') and nominalist ('here are all the different ways people use it') - and if you're asking about the OSI 7-layer model, say, that's precisely what you want. (Essentialist answer: "Level 1 is defined as [a]..." Nominalist answer: "'OSI' also stands for 'Open Source Initiative'...") Philosophy, and many of the social sciences, need a very different approach - which I'll try to describe another day, maybe.