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Fear and trembling about my Wikimania presentation

I’m doing the final keynote at Wikimania, the Wikipedia conference. This has me a tad nervous since in my experience Wikipedians tend to be knowledgeable, forthright, and have a low tolerance for the sort of BS that is my stock in trade.

I’ve posted my in-progress notes about what I plan on saying, although I also expect to modify it based on what’s discussed at the conference itself. I’m open to comments, suggestions, snorts of derision and prognostications of doom… [Tags: ]

10 Responses to “Fear and trembling about my Wikimania presentation”

  1. I’d be interested in your response to this podcast/essay on “The Great Failure of Wikipedia”. This part in particular got my attention:

    I have people who have been working for two years from the inside of Wikipedia to slowly ruin it. They have been able to change rules, they have been able to make administrators get deleted, they have been able to modify how rules are run in some places. Why? It’s fun!

    People will play World of Warcraft for 80 hours a week. There’s no difference between that and playing Wikipedia for 80 hours a week. It’s even more fun because of none of the characters in World of Warcraft think they’re what they are. People on Wikipedia, some of them think “hey, I’m contributing to the sum of human knowledge.” You can fuck with those people, that’s extra bonus time. So, 80 hours a week on Wikipedia, who cares, that’s pretty cool, that’s pretty neat.

  2. (Well, that was an interesting glitch in Movable Type’s tag-soup-to-real-HTML translator…)

  3. Fantastic article, Seth. Thanks. It turns out Wikipedia is highly human. Who’d a guessed?!

  4. I thought I got the link to Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism” from your blog David, but I didn’t see it in the recent posts when I just now checked. It is located here

    I’d suggest preparing yourself for questions about his main point, at least the main one I took from it:

    “The collective is more likely to be smart when it isn’t defining its own questions, when the goodness of an answer can be evaluated by a simple result (such as a single numeric value,) and when the information system which informs the collective is filtered by a quality control mechanism that relies on individuals to a high degree. Under those circumstances, a collective can be smarter than a person. Break any one of those conditions and the collective becomes unreliable or worse.”

    Stacy Schiff also offered a nice discussion of Wikipedia in the New Yorker recently.

  5. Regarding: “in my experience Wikipedians tend to … have a low tolerance for the sort of BS that is my stock in trade”

    You’re being very faux-modest and flattering. Wikipedians tend to be Kool-Aid junkies, and you know which side of the glass to pour it on.

  6. I think one of the key insights of Scott’s essay is that Wikipedia is not just “human” (as our host puts it) or a product of “the collective” (as Lanier puts it), but that when controversies arise about how an article should be written, the result is effectively produced by a certain kind of human–the Wikipedian vanguard, as it were–and the skills that elevate a person to that vanguard are not necessarily the skills that make one a trustworthy encyclopedist.

  7. Seth,

    I would agree that Scott’s essay does focus on the motivations of wikipedia participants. Yet, I saw it more as a detailed organizational critique of the wikipedia ideology.

    “I’m going to assume that Wikipedia is holding to the credo that it put together, that is to say that it is aiming to be the sum of human knowledge, that it continues to compare itself against reference materials.”

    In that frame his entire discussion is in line with Lanier’s. Lanier is just saying that ideologies of collectivism are subject to distortion, sometimes dramatic, by “prominent technologists and futurists.” His point, it seems to me, is exactly that an elite group is at work in wikipedia…

    To my thinking, wikis are adept tools for managing group knowledge in a delimited domain, but probably fail over the long term when taken as a repository of human knowledge.

  8. David,
    As you requested, here are a couple of comments on your conference notes-in-progress.

    About your point that the old organizing principles are fading: physical analogies for our mental world will continue as long as we continue to be physical beings. More important than Wikipedia is the technology that enables it. As the computing machines we create come to emulate and surpass human intelligence, the ways we organize and manipulate knowledge will also progress from substantive to ephemeral. But a “kiss is just a kiss.”

    About the idea that the “shape” of knowledge is changing from trees to piles, and that this affects the “place” of knowledge: If you mean the relative importance of knowledge in our lives and human systems is on the rise, and will have growing impact, I would agree. The only alternate I can offer is “intelligence.” This is knowledge with meaning. Also, the piles must be somewhat connected: trees flat on the ground?

    I suggest a more important point is that we are not creating new principles; we are simply continuing to learn as we always have. Principles are a temporary crutch, artificially created by scientists and designers to understand and control everything from tax collection to silicon chip manufacturing. The huge difference in this century is that, for the first time in human history, we have vastly more affordable and superior design tools, information processors and networks, and storage devices. Principles are just less important.

    About commoditizing knowledge: we have always done this. It will continue at a faster pace as networks and machine intelligence improve. Commoditized knowledge is cheaper and more standardized than “expert” knowledge. It will feed more people and spread safer, more peaceful governments. On the leading edge of that wave, however, are literal universes of knowledge we do not yet see or comprehend. The Wikipedia of 2016, in what ever form it takes, will have its hands full with this new knowledge.

    The key point for me about communities such as Wikipedia is their opportunity to dramatically accelerate the synthesis and pervasiveness of knowledge across more of the world. The locks are broken, the doors are gone. Many will benefit.

    Thanks and good luck.

  9. Thank you for all the great comments. (And don’t stop now!) I’m not responding only because I’m on dial up, and sort of on vacation.

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