Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wikipedia: the Good the Bad and the Ugly

In The 7th post of Web 2.0 for Dummies I described Wikipedia. This post is dedicated to collaborators types named according to Sergio Leone's famous film from 1966 The Good the Bad and the Ugly .

The Good
Most of community collaborators are included in this type: people who are trying to contribute to community project.

Wikipedia's assumption as well as other Web 2.0 project assumption is that community members will contribute to the shared project according to the policy, guidelines and processes which were defined.
In many cases this assumption is true and the Good guys are enriching and improving Wikipedia's content. However, as the old proverb says: "The way to hell is paved with good intentions", sometimes despite of the good intentions the deliverables are not good enough. I will try to support my argument by examples.

Example 1: despite of a respectable reference
I had to clarify a specific Configuration Management aspect, as part of a consultancy project. I checked 4 references: three Web references I found by Google search and a Research Note by an analyst. The English Wikipedia definition of that issue was totally different from the other three sources.

It was crucial to find out which definition is right because of the practical implications.
It was difficult to decide. On the one hand I knew that the analyst is reliable (I participated in consulting assignment behalf of the same research and advisory company) and two other sources used an identical definition. 

On the other hand the reference on which the Wikipedia's article was based was an IEEE article. IEEE is a respectful information source. Unfortunately, I have no access to the IEEE article to check it.
After analyzing the data my conclusions were:
  1. The first definition (The analyst's and the two Web sources definition) is the right definition and the English Wikipedia's definition is wrong.
  2. Probably the IEEE article is correct as well and whoever created the Article in Wikipedia misinterpreted it.
Remember that most of Wikipedia's readers will not compare the content to other sources and analyze it like me.

Example 2: I know what I know Many years ago I learned the lesson cited in the header from an IT Guru. It is not a tautology. This statement implies humility: I do not know what I do not know. All of us know people that know what they do not know, in other words talk, write or even take decisions lacking the required knowledge. A frequent reason for SOA initiatives failures is basing it on internal skills of employees lacking SOA expertise and experience instead of using external expertise together with internal skills.

What drives community members to contribute without any payments?
The Psychological and Sociological motives are similar to motives in other societies or communities. The incentive could be Power. It could be Appreciation of other community members. It could be a feeling of being a part of a group.
Now imagine that someone motivated by Appreciation or/and Power is perceived as the Information Technology expert of his Wikipedia community. He wrote articles, checked and corrected articles and participated in votes and debates.

We know that usually modern experts knowledge is profound but restricted to very specific topic or role (of course there are exceptions to this rule).
This blog major topic is SOA, so as an example we will look at articles on SOA. Let us assume that the Wikipedia community expert's knowledge is roughly described by the following chart:
Topic Knowledge level
Development Environments Excellent
Operating Systems Good
Communication Partial
Hardware Partial
Integration Minimal

Architectures Minimal

SOA No knowledge
For illustrative purposes the chart includes only few IT areas.
The Good wrote valuable articles on Development Environments and few plausible articles on Operating Systems and DBMS and is considered as the IT expert.
Let us also assume that he did not learn yet the lesson: You know what you know.
The effects on SOA articles could be:
  • Poor articles written by the community IT expert lacking SOA expertise and thinking that he already acquired SOA knowledge for writing an encyclopedic article.
  • Flagging and changing of articles written by SOA experts who are not community members - His unconscious motivation is to keep is status as the IT expert and a SOA expert banish part of his status.
  • If a SOA expert will apply for community voting process for ensuring the quality of SOA articles he will probably fail, because most of the voters do not have any idea what SOA is. They will support there IT Good hero opinion.

The Bad
I do not know if the term "community members" is adequate for describing these characters. They intentionally destroy and alter articles written by others. They also write articles including deliberate errors.
The Bad may use simple mechanisms or very sophisticated Internet Bots. However, some articles quality deteriorates due to his "collaboration".
The period until restoration of previous version may vary according to the sophistication level of the Bad activity and the community auditing level and quality.

The Ugly
The Ugly does not destroy articles. He could be a respectful community member writing valuable articles, enriching other articles, voting, discussing etc.
However, he will not adhere to Wikipedia's neutrality principles, when the article is related to him. The motivation is personal benefit in the broader sense of the term.
The Ugly may be employed by a SOA vendor. He will keep this fact as a secret and will write articles on the company he is employed by, its products or articles on SOA technology which will be sophisticatedly biased towards his company's products.
The Ugly may be a politician or a supporter of a political party or a political view, biasing deliberately an article on that topic.
The Ugly may belong to a religious sect altering articles to reflect a good image of his sect.
Another Ugly could be an author praising his book in an article concealing the real identity of the article writer.

Wikipedia is a positive and valuable project but protect yourself from the Bad's the Ugly's and some of the Good's products, which could be hidden in any article.

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