Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
January 8, 2009 7:06 AM

Why Business Needs To Stop Worrying And Love Wikipedia

There is a huge disconnect when it comes to understanding Wikipedia.

My nephew is in elementary school. In case you have been wondering, elementary school does not look anything like the school you went to when you were growing up. Kids are not only using computers to write up reports, they are using the computers to create videos instead of written reports.

Many technologists argue that this is the first time in history in which the younger generation is showing the older generation how to do things - before the mass penetration of technology, it was always the other way around.

Let's be honest, most 12-year-olds are the system administrators of our household computers. At the very least, they are the ones who are showing us how to download music, and how to sync that over to your iPod. While they go to school, we get schooled by them in the ways of the technological world and how things connect.

I asked my nephew if he ever uses Wikipedia for research on his school projects - to which he admitted that he does, but that the teachers do not encourage its use because the content is not "trustworthy."

When people say that Wikipedia is not trustworthy, it reminds me of the same folks who still think they can get a computer virus from a website that has Flash animation on it. It's simply not true. It's about time to understand the power of Wikipedia and what it means to business today.

Odds are you have seen Wikipedia either by going directly to the website when you needed some kind of information about a topic, or when you do a search on any of the major search engines. Without question, Wikipedia is the largest repository of information, but what makes it ever-more fascinating is that Wikipedia was created and is edited and curated by you and me. It's not an encyclopedia like the Britannica that is vetted and reviewed by industry experts and PhDs. With a couple of keystrokes, anyone can change an entry to the way that they think it should be. That's where the issues of trust comes into play.

How can we possibly trust this information if just anyone can alter, edit and manipulate it at will?

That's part of the amazing power of Wikipedia and the people who take part in contributing and adding to it. These contributors (known in the Wikipedia world as "editors") are defending one of the most profound things we cherish as human beings: Knowledge.

These extraordinary warriors use their keyboards to eradicate and correct all the ne'er-do-wells trying to change entries such as, "George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) is the forty-third and current President of the United States," to "George Walker Bush (born July 6, 1946) is a big stupid head."

The Wisdom of Crowds - Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations is a best-selling business book by James Surowiecki (there was a rumour floating around that all new employees at Google were told to read it). Published in 2004, the premise of the book is that "all of us are smarter than any one of us." The collective knowledge, power and wisdom of a group is what wins. Not just in an environment like Wikipedia, but in business as well. Wikipedia doesn't just distill information that is constantly being updated and changed. Wikipedia also teaches business the power of mass collaboration.

What would your business look like if instead of sending one another e-mails and Word documents, all of that information was suddenly available on a secure Intranet where everyone could collaborate and share that knowledge? One of the biggest HR costs comes from replacing and training employees. What if all of that tribal knowledge (the stuff we learn and then file away in the back of our brains) could be passed on, shared and saved, instead of dying in someone's e-mail or voice mail?

Wikipedia is a non-profit organization that is run through the Wikimedia Foundation. Because Wikipedia is advertising-free and has no revenue model, it is supported, almost entirely, by donations (think of it as PBS for the Web). This year, the foundation set a goal to raise $6 million, and just the other day, it managed to surpass that goal. According to Wikipedia found Jimmy Wales: "More than 125,000 [people] have donated $4 million. In addition, we've received major gifts and foundation support totaling $2 million. This combined revenue will cover our operating expenses for the current fiscal year, ending June 30, 2009." It's nice to see that even when money is tight, individuals - people like you and me - still believe in the moral value and power of information. In fact, the campaign was not doing all that well until Wales made a plea to the community at large, stating: "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."

I know, it makes you feel a little bit guilty for thinking that the Internet was only about porn, gambling and downloading illegal music, doesn't it?

One of the best articles written about Wikipedia (and Internet culture in general), "The Charms of Wikipedia" from the March 20, 2008, edition of The New York Review of Books by Nicholson Baker, has one paragraph that truly defines this new culture of sharing and information in a digital age:

"Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead, it's a fast-paced game of paintball... Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals - up to a point - the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in [it]."

So back to my nephew's teacher and the entire culture of people who do not spend enough time really analyzing what is going on here, let's ask this question: If there is a mistake in the Encyclopedia Britannica, how long will that take to be corrected? How would you even know? On Wikipedia, it would probably be corrected in less time than it took you to read this article. And if it wasn't corrected, you could fix it yourself for everyone's benefit.

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

- Vancouver Sun - Why business needs to stop worrying and love Wikipedia.
-
Montreal Gazette - Wikipedia reflects power of information, marketing boss says.

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Bryan Person
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch:

    My daughter can use Wikipedia for her school projects -- she's in the 9th grade -- but it can't be the primary source. Wikipedia can serve as a great starting point, and its information can be cross-referenced elsewhere on the web.

    Also, you might want to check out a report on Wikipedia and education from CBC's Spark podcast last month: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/blog/2008/12/full_interview_chris_jensen.html It's good to see that more and more schools *are* embracing Wikipedia.

    Bryan | @BryanPerson

    Reply
  • Posted by Richard
    Richard

    How often have you seen an entry that you know to be wrong on wikipedia? I have to say in my experience not very often.

    Of course, the more people using it, the more chance there is of an expert looking at a topic and hence correcting anything that is factually incorrect.

    All sources of data should be cross referenced, especially "secondary" sources in any work to eliminate mistakes and writer bias. On this last point, if there are a lot of contributers to a wikipedia article, then it becomes a more trustworthy source as it's been more thoroughly checked.

    Reply
  • Posted by Allan McDougall
    Mitch Joel

    Wikipedia is a great start for any research, that's for sure. But kids need to know they can't rely on it for all of the information they need to successfully complete a problem. Wikipedia seems like it cover everything you need, but it isn't. It leaves out a LOT. I don't blame the school for discouraging kids from using wikipedia, not because it's untrustworthy but because it's not some kind of golden oracle with every answer--neither was the encyclopedia britannica. These are just starting points.

    Reply
  • Good review on Wisdom of Crowds and Crowdsourcing: http://bit.ly/crowdwisdomreview

    "What would your business look like if instead of sending one another e-mails and Word documents, all of that information was suddenly available on a secure Intranet where everyone could collaborate and share that knowledge?"

    I've set up internal wikis for several companies and projects. And I would never run a company without one. The main lessons: invest in a facilitator, do periodic workshops so folks get comfortable using it, use it (get a request for a file via email? send them to the wiki instead of attaching). I've found that wikis are great information repositories. Stuff you need to refer to again and again: logos and stylesheets, policies, login/pass, contact info, birthdays, etc. Until they get the functionality of a googledoc they are less good for collaboration, specifically writing together. It takes a while to get people comfortable with the wiki, and with wiki markup. Loud support and use from leadership is crucial. So is a facilitator: someone to organize, link pages, clean up orphans, provide support, push periodic updates (top content, did you know you can _____ ). The company "community" will slowly start participating and doing this organically -- but it's not instantaneous. You need to build part of it before they will come ;)

    Reply
  • Posted by Gerda Lattey
    Mitch Joel

    I LOVE Wikipedia. What a wonderful resource.It offers reliable, quick access to concise, readable information with its only downside being that it had sufficiently ended friendly wine soaked disagreements that run late into the night.That being said, all information should be fact checked, edited and then checked again, whether you are 6 or 106.

    Reply
  • Posted by Fagstein
    Mitch Joel

    Being trustworthy is about more than being easily-correctable.

    While it's true that big-profile Wikipedia articles like George W. Bush are well-referenced, comprehensive and objective, many more obscure articles have huge gaps of information, or have more obscure forms of vandalism which may not have been caught by the anti-vandal squad.

    Wikipedia is useful if you know how to use it. Unfortunately, most young kids don't. They assume that if it's on Wikipedia, it must be correct, and they don't fact-check beyond that.

    Wikipedia doesn't want to be trusted. That's what people forget. It wants you to check its sources and get your primary research information from there. If the information is unsourced, Wikipedia wants you to assume it is made up.

    The problem is that Wikipedia is somewhat a victim of its own success. Because it is mostly correct and very comprehensive, people assume it is always so. Wikipedia was never designed with such a guarantee in mind.

    Reply
  • Posted by Adam Singer
    Mitch Joel

    "What would your business look like if instead of sending one another e-mails and Word documents, all of that information was suddenly available on a secure Intranet where everyone could collaborate and share that knowledge?"

    This already exists!!! - it's called Basecamp =)

    Welcome to business 2.0:
    http://www.basecamphq.com/

    Companies using this can run circles around their competition.

    Reply
  • @Adam Singer: Hmmmmm. I always think of Basecamp or Goplan and project-management tools. Not long-term spaces. Although know they have wiki-like functionality. Do you have examples of Basecamp used as an intranet? I'd love to see those. 37 signals rocks :)

    Reply
  • Posted by Paola Rosciano
    Mitch Joel

    I'm from Mexico, and as I'm sure it happens elsewhere, there are a lot of websites where the information is completely untrustworthy and because they're online and Wikipedia is too they end up being thought of as the same. What people fail to see is that the articles in Wikipedia include sources where you can verify the information contained.

    Reply
  • Posted by tom brakke
    Mitch Joel

    I find that Wikipedia is a good first place to start, but I look for confirmation elsewhere before writing about something I see there.

    @Richard said, "How often have you seen an entry that you know to be wrong on wikipedia? I have to say in my experience not very often."

    There are a couple of entries where I could be considered an expert, with detailed, specialized knowledge. Those entries have inaccuracies. In one case, a business relationship prevents me from changing it, and in the other, I changed it, only to have it subsequently modified by others.

    For everything to work as well in practice as it should in theory, those with the expertise need to have the time and inclination to participate (and to fight any prolonged battles that need to be fought), and that doesn't always happen.

    Reply
  • Posted by Zach Everson
    Mitch Joel

    Wikipedia entries are good sources--over time. At any instant, an entry may have several errors. Over a period of time, however, they are trustworthy.

    For example, a few months ago there was an argument about the city in which Bruce Springsteen was born. While it was eventually settled, for a few days, the location kept oscillating between two towns. If someone researching Springsteen looked at that article just once during that time, it's possible he or she got the wrong city.

    What we need are time lapse views of Wikipedia articles.

    Reply
  • Posted by Gregory Kohs
    Mitch Joel

    A recent study of the 100 Wikipedia articles about the hundred U.S. Senators demonstrated objectively that the articles contained baseless misinformation and libel, about 6.8% of the time.

    On a scale, do you think that a 6.8% error rate is commendable, acceptable, or unacceptable, Mitch? I find it unacceptable, given that Wikipedia has tools like "Flagged Versions" that they refuse to implement.

    http://www.mywikibiz.com/Wikipedia_Vandalism_Study

    Reply
  • Posted by Brett
    Mitch Joel

    When I was a kid, we had the Encyclopedia Britannica, all 24 volumes. It was beautiful - I spent forever buried in their pages. This was the knowledge, the authority on everything. They served me consistently for at least 8 years, the same books, no updates.
    Back then, dinosaurs used to be slow, lumbering creatures, dragging collosal, heavy tails around behind them. An injury to their tail could take minutes to register in their pea-sized brain.
    Nowadays, dinosaurs stand on 2 legs, their tail extends into the air behind them for balance, they run quickly, and their intelligence levels seem to have advanced dramatically.
    Knowledge itself changes more rapidly nowadays - our mediums need to match it. Authority, well that varies even amongst the experts, doesn't it?

    Reply
  • Posted by Gregory Kohs
    Mitch Joel

    Hey, Mitch.

    Take a look at this fictional account of Abe Lincoln's whereabouts:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jackson,_Michigan&diff=next&oldid=130167692

    Lincoln never set foot in Jackson, Michigan, ever.

    But Wikipedia had it that he did (quite prominently, to have attended the convention of the fledgling Republican Party!). Wikipedia "said so" for 601 days. That article was viewed over 89,000 times over that period.

    Your article makes me laugh.

    Reply
  • Mitch Joel

    Hi there - a recent podcast from Inforum touches on this very subject. Andrew Keen (Author, Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is Killing Our Culture) and Jimmy Wales (Founder, Wikipedia) went head to head in a debate about Web 2.0 and traditional media.

    It was a fantastic discussion of "old school" vs "new school". Especially when the conversation delved into the apparent importance of Harry Potter versus Hamlet. I highly recommend it!

    http://fora.tv/2008/02/28/Jimmy_Wales_and_Andrew_Keen_Debate_Web_2_0

    Reply
  • Wow, some great commentary here. Please keep it coming.

    1. I don't think I ever said that Wikipedia should the only source for research. No research should ever be done with one source.

    2. I don't get people who complain about errors on Wikipedia... fix them - isn't that the whole point?

    And yes, people will come in, and change it back... that's what's great about some of the discussion pages too.

    Wikipedia is not "someone else's" - it's "ours." Treat it accordingly.

    Reply
  • Posted by John Meadows
    Mitch Joel

    I'm a fan of Wikipedia, but regarding your comment about Flash not being able to infect computers, there have been a number of documented vulnerabilities that have been exploited by malware creators.

    Reply
  • Fair enough on the malware, but there are still some draconian organizations that do not allow access to any website that has Flash.

    Reply
  • Posted by John Meadows
    Mitch Joel

    At one time, some people called IT organizations "draconion" for not allowing ActiveX through the firewall.

    I agree that filtering out all Flash is going to far, but it is important to put oneself in the shoes of the CIO who is accountable for maintaining the integrity of an organization's IT infrastructure.

    Reply
  • Posted by Larry Page
    Mitch Joel

    2 big problems with Wiki:
    The editors in some niches are like a big gang of gangsters - promoting what they think is right and closing any chance for a debate and thats very ugly and sad.
    The second thing is that the links there are nofollow :)

    Reply
  • Posted by Gregory Kohs
    Mitch Joel

    Mitch Joel says: "I don't get people who complain about errors on Wikipedia... fix them - isn't that the whole point?"

    So that some idiot can come along two weeks later when I'm not paying attention any more, and "fix" it back?

    Actually, I guess that is the whole point of Wikipedia -- keep feeding people's addictions, without much regard to actually getting the encyclopedia "right".

    A study by the University of Minnesota showed that Wikipedia is actually getting more and more "wrong" (they called them "damaged views") over time. That's where "the point" is taking us, to a crappier and crappier encyclopedia. Congratulations, Wikipedia supporters.

    Reply
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