In the most recent Dispatches from a Public Librarian, Scott Douglas asks readers to “invent my life” on Wikipedia. By the time I checked out the Wikipedia article, which was not even linked from his essay, it had already been protected which is Wikilanguage for “we’re stopping you from editing this page until you monkeys quit messing with it.” A quick inspection of the page’s history, ah transparency, shows that the page was created by someone named Roboscott (which matches his email address) about two weeks ago and had a flurry of editing yesterday, the day the essay was published, culminating in it being protected about 24 hours ago.
I find that ever since I edited a typo on the celebrity sex tape entry on Wikipedia (slightly nsfw), I’ve become more interested in the site. This is because Wikipedia lets you have a watchlist, a list of all the pages you’ve edited. You can then see when any of these pages have been edited by anyone else, and what they did to them. Most of the pages I’ve edited are either Vermont town pages which aren’t updated too often, or the library and ALA-related pages which are frequently updated, often by vandals or sometimes just well-meaning people who have a very specific axe to grind with the association. The watchlist becomes as addictive as an RSS feed and does lead to a lot of hyperfocus on whatever your pet topics are. I have about 300 pages on my watchlist, but 250-ish of them are Vermont towns. The celebrity sex tape page is updated every few hours most days, it’s fascinating to watch it change. Democracy in action? A bunch of nerds with too much time on their hands?
This is a feature I think many people don’t know about Wikipedia. I think there is a lot people don’t know about Wikipedia, or the way wikis work generally, just like there is a lot they don’t know about MySpace, or Flickr, or del.icio.us. Speaking of del.ico.us:
You probably read about Meredith presenting at the Wikimania conference in Boston. If not, here are her slides, and here’s a link to the audio. I certainly would have been there too if I didn’t have a scheduling conflict. I’ve been reading more about wikis lately.
One of the things I didn’t know about wikis was the original purpose behind them. Wikis are tools for creating reference works. Originally, it was the only way you could coax programmers to write documentation, a task they hated. Ward Cunningham wrote a tool to solve that problem, and the wiki was born.
This is excellent if you’re explaining what the KeyboardInput and ScreenOutput functions of your computer program does, and if you are writing encyclopedic entries for [[World War II]] or the [[Russian National Library]]. But for many smaller workgroups, wiki pages tend to get meaningless and confusing titles like [[TODO]] or [[Things to consider]] or [[Ideas from the meeting last week]]. Nobody knows what goes into which page and the only difference between the old intranet mess and the new wiki mess is that nobody has any excuse any longer for not updating and reorganizing the information. That doesn’t mean the information gets updated or reorganized. It certainly doesn’t get so by itself. It’s only the excuse that has been removed. Nowadays people admit spending three hours a day just reading their e-mail (ten years ago this seemed like wasted time, and people would be ashamed to admit it, now the shame has gone away),
but how much time can they spend just reorganizing information on their workgroup’s wiki?
. Interesting side note regarding scalability of Wikipedia. Major media mention of articles on Wikipedia — particularly in areas known to be frequented by tech-savvy individuals — can result in whole swaths of mentioned articles getting protected status, something that can only be conferred by an administrator. You can trace the history of the Elephant article to see that it was getting a few edits a day until just about the time that the Colbert Report aired and then it began getting several edits per hour. In fact most of the articles mentioned by Colbert are now semi-protected.
This is a dramatic difference between print and collaborative online reference-type works. The transparency of Wikipedia is both a mark in its favor in a Library 2.0ish transparency way as well as a detriment in that it keeps track of every bit of bad behavior as well as every helpful edit. An open question is whether tracking the bad with the good results in less petty vandalism (your jerkishness on display for everyone to see) or more (Wikipedia history = hall of fame for vandals). We deal with this over on MetaFilter a lot, trying to figure out what to do with people who abuse the site and what to do with their contributions.
As a side reading project, I strongly recomment taking the time to dig through Jaron Lanier’s essay DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism and article about Wikipedia and other collaborative sites from the perspective of someone who both realy understands technology and also someone who examines it with a critical eye. I read the whole thing, I suggest you read the whole thing.
The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals â€” just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.
These are just a few ideas about how to train a potentially dangerous collective and not let it get out of the yard. When there’s a problem, you want it to bark but not bite you.
The illusion that what we already have is close to good enough, or that it is alive and will fix itself, is the most dangerous illusion of all. By avoiding that nonsense, it ought to be possible to find a humanistic and practical way to maximize value of the collective on the Web without turning ourselves into idiots. The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.
Good article in this month’s Searcher Magazine comparing and contrasting Wikipedia and Britannica with an eye towards castigating neither.
Letâ€™s act like careful, reasonable people. Wikipedia is a great starting point. Itâ€™s a lesson in research methodology, a fun way to share expertise, and a groundbreaking new way of working. Its consensus model represents a shift in management styles and away from hierarchical organization. You might say that Wikipedia is Zen-like. Its ever-changing nature means that when you read it, you are completely in the moment. And its collective brain is like a conscious universe in which we are all one.
Britannica is a different animal. Flawed, yes. Behind the times with regard to non-Western and minority leadership, sure. Indispensable? You betcha.
Libraries are supposed to be all about sharing. Granted there is the line between public library sharing of community resources and academic libraries that often have more archival purposes in their missions. That said, are we good sharers? Could we share better? This question comes out of a lot of things I’ve been reading recently.
1. The USA Today article about Wikipedia and the distinction it draws, sharply, between the authority of print and the authority of the collaborative web. However, I think there is another distinction being drawn about the immediacy and responsiveness of the collaborative web versus the responsiveness of print. If an article in print was found to contain inaccuracies, how quickly would they be fixed? I’m aware that there is a more rigorous fact-checking process for much of what winds up in what we consider authoritative print, but not always. Wikipedia is also often chock full of citations. I won’t go to the mat for Wikipedia as the end-all be-all of reference materials, but I will say that the idea that we are all responsible for what is real, authoritative, and true is a powerful idea, and not one that I think is heavily subscribed to by information gatekeepers.
2. The “library as box” mentality. The idea of outreach is to get the library into places in the community that may not otherwise make use of the library. It also serves to get librarians out of the library. Many librarians are “out” in their community but many are not. At my old public library job, there was a clear benefit to having reference librarians who had lived in town for decades. This was much more important than my technology knowledge, though the two complemented each other strongly. I know it’s a crazy idea but I’d think that all big libraries should have librarians who don’t work in the library at all. Bookmobile drivers and dog and pony show people, but also people who staff information desks at community events, hang out with seniors at the senior center and kids at the battered women’s shelter. The web forced us as a profession talk about “outside the box” service, but shouldn’t we have been thinking about that all along? My job takes me to many libraries and technology centers and I find that an important part of my job is the bardic role of telling librarians and computer users about other librarians and computer users, sharing their stories. One of the most important parts of grappling with frustrations and setbacks is realizing that it’s not just you, that you’re not alone. Part of the divide in the digital divide is people not knowing anyone or any place where they can go get answers to tech questions, or even if their questions are easy or hard.
3. Content creation. The whole 2.0 thing in general seems to be about using the hive mind and the affordances of technology to synthesize newer, better and more useful systems that then become available for everyone. Libraries have historically been places to receive information but with some rare exceptions, less places to contribute information. Blogs and wikis and tag clouds, all the stuff we prattle on about are good for reading or reading about, but they reallly shine through use. I had the pleasure of having a brief but intense talk with Andrea and Kevin Dames at Internet Librarian. Kevin turned some of this talk and thoughts of his own into an idea: Multimedia Information Centers where people can “mashup” the library, both creating content for themselves but also through incentives, contests and enthusiasm, roll that content right back into promoting the library. I like the ouroboros ideas where the investment that you put in comes back out to you on the other side.
So? I’m not sure. I think one downside to the blog blowup is that sometimes it’s easy to put an idea out there online and think “Good, I got the ball rolling, now someone can pick that up and run with it.” This is especially hard if we’re in jobs or situations that don’t allow us the freedom to explore the ideas we have or, in some cases, if our ideas don’t jibe with our institutions learning and sharing styles. I like being a philosophizing librarian, but I also think it’s important to meet the people who your ideas trickle down to, see how and why they repurpose it, or how and why it works or doesn’t work. Our patrons share their hopes and dreams and foibles and ambitions with us all the time, it may be time to give back, become more interactive and collaborative, make that door swing both ways. This is what Library 2.0 means to me.