November 01, 2004

Re: Interesting thoughts on wiki's

Thanks to Barney for This Link, which I aim to pick apart. Unlike the other trackbacks and comments to this article so far, I neither personally know Rebecca MacKinnon nor have I followed her career. I know a thing or three about wikis, but I've only dabbled in small town journalism on and off since about '93.. So I'm nobody.. but it does not take an expert to perceive some of the flawed observations in this article.

First of all, Rebecca spends way too much time comparing torrents of wiki users to individual journalists. From her piece we learn that "'A journalist' is paid to cover a story, and paid to work past their own personal biases and lack of interest. On the other hand 'A wiki news reporter' has no motivation other than hubris or political slant to go in depth into anything. Ergo 'A journalist' is superior to 'a wiki reporter'. "

While that may be accurate I feel it entirely misses the point. Yes, 'a journalist' is marginally superior to 'a wiki reporter' in the grand scheme. But is not also 'a bear' ridiculously superior to 'a bee'? Yet a colony of africanized honey bees will drop a grizzly out of sheer boredom. The collective biases of several hundred or thousand wiki reporters are more likely to cancel one another out than the biases of a news staff will be affected by the perceptiveness of their audience. Also, since many hands make light work you would be amazed at how small being paid remains a factor to collective motivation.

She does bring out that Wikipedia (and most wiki projects) have a vaguely young, male, developed-country bias. She's annoyed that it has more to say about middle earth than it does about Africa. I on the other hand say that is a spectacularly good thing. Contemporary newspapers and news organizations pay money to send credentialed reporters into places like Africa. They can then brag that they are worldly based on the number of words they've written.. but in a wiki nobody will speak authoratively about Africa unless they are writing from there. There are fewer Africans than Tolkien nerds on the wikipedia, but pretty much zero parachute journalism. Whatever has been said about Africa has been to the point, instead of being leavened by a misguided sense of affirmative action.

Finally she worries about the timing of wiki news. I'm personally wondering what news organization she supports on the other side of the matter. Are there online news sources she would compare with wiki news for timeliness? Most newspapers with affiliated web presences starve their sites to feed their dead-tree investments for as long as they can. She can't be talking about newspapers or network news, since you can't be timelier than your news cycle. If she's at all worried about bias she can't be talking about most 24/7 news channels either. Nobody I know of will prefer Fox News to Wiki News. If there's one fairly respected 24/7 news channel it's CNN, but CNN can only break so many stories at a time no matter how many sibling channels it spawns. Wiki news on the other hand can fight on as many different fronts as it has contributors. CNN can only give you the news that they want to give you. To learn about Mother Teresa's death on CNN you had to wait for breaks in coverage on Lady Di's death. Non-contributors to Wiki News can follow whatever links they would like to view whatever details, sides, or facets of whatever breaking story they would like without being bothered by news that others may see as more important.

All I can report on the matter of wiki timeliness is that I contribute on a tiny wiki which documents and cross references the doings of an internet cartoon called Late one night, The Brothers Chaps put a secret cartoon on a secret page that absolutely no other things anywhere on the internet pointed to. They did this at 2am, EST. They told NOONE. Nonetheless, it only took 750 seconds for to post a complete synopsis, references list, and screenshots. is regularly maintained by about 8 of us goofballs.. so how many wikinews contributors should it take to break a story? Recall the incident where Richard Reid allegedly snuck a shoe bomb onto a passenger airplane. What a swarm of unpaid passengers interested in preserving their lives can do, a swarm of unpaid journalists interested in preserving the truth about events in their local area can also do.

For another example, ask yourselves where the footage from the impact of the first airplane on 9/11 came from. Televised news has shown us this entirely unforeseen event from multiple angles. Without researching the matter, I can feel safe stating that none of that footage was from news cameras. At that fateful moment, (as at most similar moments) there were zero news cameras and at least a dozen recreational cameras trained at that point in the sky. When an event occurs, you cannot expect the eyes of a reporter to be there to witness it.. but you can expect somebody’s eyes to be there.. perhaps many somebodys'.. and as net-saviness expands, some of those people — who are not and cannot be paid to do so — will contribute their experience to a wiki.

Wiki for any purpose is the electronic upgrade to word of mouth. When you ask somebody about something, and they say they haven't heard of it, you fill them in on what you know. The advantage of a wiki over gossip is of course the superiority of the medium. Instead of half-heard, half-forgotten stories; everything is shared in black and white, ne'er to fade. Instead of variant stories that waft beyond the control of those that know better, the story is right there and can be reigned in by anyone with superior factual knowledge. Previous versions are there waiting for vindication in case the last contributor's "knowledge" wasn't quite so factual.

Thus, wikis for reference in general and for news in particular possess the speed of gossip, the veracity of indefinite fact checking, the availability of the internet (fast surplanting the worldwide penetration ratios of the telephone), and the maximum insight, professionalism, and credentials of the best endowed contributors to any given work. I refuse to challenge anyone to point me towards a news organization who can claim even remotely similar properties as it would be an unfairly rhetorical exercise.

Posted by jesse at November 1, 2004 02:02 AM

Nicely put, Jesse. Check the end of my latest posting at to see why NPOV is my new favorite acronym;-)

Posted by: Barney at November 1, 2004 08:15 AM

To me, wiki is half of the airport bus in Honolulu.

Posted by: DeAnn at November 2, 2004 12:27 AM

I don't get to travel this much ;)

Posted by: Jesse Thompson at November 2, 2004 11:00 AM