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Wikipedia and the NPOV Fallacy

What are the drawbacks of transparency and information? Can you really know too much about a contributor?

Quite a few decisions about Wikipedia come from the strong personality of Jimmy (sometimes called “Jimbo”) Wales, who even after acknowledging in the aftermath of WikiGate that anonymous writers are a problem to be addressed, insists that user ratings and more information about contributors and editors would not make Wikipedia a better tool.

Since we’re invoking the first person pronoun as an authoritative source for system design, I find Amazon to be quite useful, in part due to the way the system works. I can see what the reviewer has reviewed, I can see if the reviewer’s review is useful, and I can track what I find useful. I can also use the reviews to determine why others found a book good, bad, or indifferent. The Amazon reviews of Jarhead are a great example of that.

I’m cautious about invoking the wisdom of crowds–you mean the same people who reelected George Bush?–but to see why a person gave a recipe on Epicurious a particular rating is helpful to me in selecting recipe. (Knowing when and how someone isn’t wise is useful, too, like the people who complain that a macaroon recipe doesn’t work and make it clear that they were using marzipan and not almond paste.) Plus the ratings become part of the metadata.

This brings me to one other concern about Wikipedia that doesn’t get discussed much with all the emphasis on anonymous writers/editors–and is a problem inherent to most reference tools: the idea that there can be one composite description of a fact. I ran across this recently while researching Joan Didion through literary encyclopedias available online through my academic library and reading two wildly different assessments of her 1992 collection, After Henry. These “introductions” to Didion, like the Wikipedia entry (which skips that period entirely; Wikipedia is weakest in the humanities), ultimately are less “NPOV” (Neutral Point Of View) than “MPOV” (where M=”my point of view as the person with the power/staying time/editorial privilege/power/personal computing time to have the definitive say on this item”). I thought about this again this morning while reading New York Times Public Editor Byron Calame’s lame response to reader complaints that 6 out of 61 “notable books” selected by the Times were written by Times authors. I was less fixated on that (as revealing as that is about the Times) than by the reminder that Jonathan Kozol and Maureen Dowd had recently been skewered by NYTBR guest reviewers with highly personal axes to grind. Here is the official-newspaper-of-record-OMG-it’s-the-Times review of Dowd’s book, and it’s written by a woman whose book Dowd criticized. I don’t even know why they bother calling them reviews.

But I (slightly) digress. I’m not comparing the NYTBR with an encyclopedia or with Wikipedia, yet the example was fresh in my mind, and it brings me back to the idea that for all the talk about an encyclopedia being a starting point, and just a starting point, the most neutral point of view for a starting point for discovery would be much more faceted, transparent in its sources, and reflective of different voices. Imagine Kathryn Harrison and Maureen Dowd editing one another’s Wikipedia essays under the names “luvmydaddy” and “greyladywriter,” and my points about the NPOV/transparency issue might get a little clearer.

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