Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Promise of WikiSeek

Following a trail of bread crumbs on the blogosphere that was created by my recent exchange of thoughts with Wikipedian Geoffrey Burling led me from Burling's Wikipedia-themed blog Original Research to a post on TechCrunch about the launch of WikiSeek a couple of weeks ago. But before I comment on WikiSeek, kudos are due Burling and the many other Wikipedians like him that have helped Wikipedia become a force to be reckoned with on the World Wide Web. This was the intent of my previous post on XODP where I referred to Burling as one of Wikipedia's true believers.

Burling's blog is a must-read for those who are interested in the future of the Open Content Movement. And while XODPers as a group are anything but discrete and insular in their motivations, my original purpose in founding the XODP eGroup was to foster discussion about the future of the Open Content Movement. To wit:
"I'd like to hear any and all other ideas that people have about the possibility of life after ODP and the future of the Open Content movement."
While ODP still has a handful of true believers hanging on to the false and broken promises found in ODP's cynically motivated social contract, I think whatever progressive genius ODP once had has been inherited by Wikipedia.
"Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, -- are all with thee."
To the extent that Wikipedia has claimed the mantle of the Open Content Movement, I think that WikiSeek also holds great promise, notwithstanding the faint praise of Search Guru Danny Sullivan for the latter. On this note, when comparing and contrasting WikiSeek with Wikiasari/Search Wikia (or whatever the hell they're currently calling it), I find myself buying in to the concept of WikiSeek more and more and wondering why Wikiasari is getting so much more favorable press.

Although WikiSeek and Wikiasari share all sorts of common ground, they are still two very distinct concepts. The premise of WikiSeek is that Wikipedia is a source of trusted URLs that can and should form the boundaries of WikiSeek's search engine database whereas the premise of Wikiasari is not unlike the premise underlying ODP -- i.e., "Humans do it better." Both WikiSeek and Wikiasari rely upon human editors, but WikiSeek much less so, enhancing the human-generated product of Wikipedia as a starting point for search engine algorithms that index the content found on Wikipedia as well as content found by following links on Wikipedia. In striking contrast to WikiSeek, Wikiasari relies much more heavily upon human editors to create its database and rank the URLs contained therein.

Perhaps the reason why I believe in the promise of WikiSeek is that it is attempting to put into practice a vision that I already believe. To wit, back in the day when Jimbo Wales was still contributing to discussions at the XODP Yahoo! eGroup, I stated that while Wikipedia is not a classic Yahoo!-style Web directory, it fills a void that such directories do not even attempt to fill by providing peer-reviewed information about particular topics, and that there was no reason why Wikipedia couldn't also serve as a centralized clearinghouse for categorized URLs.

WikiSeek is not the first search engine to restrict its scope to a trusted database of URLs. To the best of my knowledge, the lesser known Turbo 10, which I've written about previously on XODP, was the first to pioneer this strategy under the rubric of a customizable meta search. However, since the founders of Turbo 10 are now focusing their marketing efforts on their award-winning Trexy metasearch, it's highly unlikely that they will be putting forth any development efforts towards a Turbo 10 style customizable meta search, which leaves the field wide open for WikiSeek.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Wikipedia's Bias Against Experts

In a considered response to my previous blog post entitled This Wikipedia Article Brought to You by Microsoft, comes now a blog post by Geoffrey Burling:
". . . [T]he cheery invitation at the top of the opening page of Wikipedia [reads]: 'Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.' Those words do suggest to the general public that anyone is welcome to edit the content, without regard [to whether] the article is about you, your business, or something that you make your living from knowing the details about. . . . [I]s this invitation only open to some people -- or is it open to everyone?"
The fact that Burling was compelled to ask this question means that my blog post reached its intended target of one of Wikipedia's true believers. Burling continues:
". . . [U]nless you want to abide by Jimbo Wales' advice that one should just edits[sic] the Talk pages, it really isn't clear what one should do."
I wholeheartedly disagree. According to the official Wikipedia policy of Ignore All Rules, which was endorsed in its most recent incarnation as early as August 19, 2006 by Jimbo Wales himself: "If [Wikipedia] rules prevent you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore them." The only question left to consider is whether this official policy is truly policy or simply self-aggrandizing rhetoric. In other words: Are Wikipedians truly free to think for themselves?

Burling continues:
"If you are an ethical person, and see a mistake or omission in a Wikipedia article that you can correct and you would make the edit whether or not you had a conflict of interest in the article -- go ahead and make the edit."
As ignorant and misguided as Wikipedia's so-called "conflict of interest" rules are, I respectfully disagree with Burling's advice to honor the spirit of Wikipedia's policies by breaching the letter of Wikipedia's rules. Rather, my personal feeling is that no one is under any obligation to save anyone else from his or her ignorance, so unless you have a vested interest in quality control at Wikipedia, you should limit all your controversial contributions to Wikipedia "Talk pages" in lieu of making edits to Wikipedia articles that might quickly be reverted. This holds true for any type of controversial Wikipedia edit, not just edits to those articles where there is a so-called "conflict of interest."

The reason that I refer to Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules as "so called 'conflict of interest' rules" is because Wikipedia uses the term "conflict of interest" with an insidious lack of precision that would more properly be characterized as bias. Contrary to having a potential conflict of interest, having a bias is not usually a bad thing, as expertise and bias tend to go hand in hand. What is a bad thing is an unfair or irrational bias, not unlike the unfair and irrational bias that most Wikipedians seems to have against knowledgeable people editing Wikipedia articles in their areas of expertise.

Burling continues:
" If Wikipedia is truly open to anyone -- or at least eveyone[sic] who is reasonably civil and demonstrates a minimal amount of common sense -- then this ought to work."
I respectfully disagree. This assertion is based on several flawed premises, the first being that a significant number of highly qualified experts have some sort of desire to reach out to the unwashed masses and work with them in a spirit of civility. The exact opposite is true, which is one of the reasons why Wikipedia has such a hard time attracting recognized experts as contributors. Indeed, one of the most common thoughts that I hear from experts who choose not to contribute to Wikipedia is that they might be interested in contributing to a wiki where only experts could contribute. In sum, as useful and revolutionary as Wikipedia has been and is, it cannot be all things to all people.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

This Wikipedia Article Brought to You by Microsoft

According to an Associated Press article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, January 24, 2007, Microsoft acknowledged that it had approached a blogger "and offered to pay him to correct what it was sure were inaccuracies in Wikipedia articles on an open-source document standard and a rival format." In an uncharacteristically patronizing comment, Jimbo Wales reportedly stated for the record, "We were very disappointed to hear that Microsoft was taking that approach."

The blogger in question is Rick Jelliffe, who is no slouch when it comes to computer programming and technical standards. Indeed, Jelliffe is noteworthy enough to have his own Wikipedia article, which has been around since long before this tempest in a teapot scandal broke, and prior to this story becoming newsworthy, Jelliffe wrote on his blog:

". . . I was a little surprised to receive email a couple of days ago from Microsoft saying they wanted to contract someone independent but friendly (me) for a couple of days to provide more balance on Wikipedia concerning ODF/OOXML. I am hardly the poster boy of Microsoft partisanship! Apparently they are frustrated at the amount of spin from some ODF stakeholders on Wikipedia and blogs.

"I think I’ll accept it: FUD enrages me and MS certainly are not hiring me to add any pro-MS FUD, just to correct any errors I see."

I've never understood the logic behind Wikipedia's conflict of interest rules, and this particular incident is reminiscent of the sort of humbug that one would expect from the faithful members of the Inner Party at ODP/dMOZ. Sure, there's a potential conflict of interest when someone is paid to contribute content to a website that is built primarily by volunteers, but it's rather naive for Wikipedians to assume that this sort of thing doesn't happen all the time. Indeed, the articles that Jelliffe was supposed to review and edit were allegedly written by people working for IBM.

In a more measured, albeit still sanctimonius position reported by Brian Bergstein of the Associated Press, "Wales said the proper course [of action to take] would have been . . . to write or commission a 'white paper' on the subject with its interpretation of the facts, post it to an outside Web site and then link to it in the Wikipedia articles' discussion forums." However, having covered Wikipedia editing practices and policies at continuing education seminars for lawyers and paralegals, I can honestly say that the rationale for such bureaucratic nonsense is inconsistent with Wikipedia's fundamental values of radical openness.

During my tenure at ODP, the pendulum swang the other way when it came to incorporating professional content providers (PCPs) into the ODP community. Said mercenaries were given carte blanche over the hardworking volunteers who helped ODP win the Web. As I stated almost seven years ago in my ODP swan song, ". . . I had no problem working with PCP editors, but I think that ODP could have and should have put them on a much shorter leash with a cadre of more trustworthy volunteer editors as the handlers." In the context of a purportedly open community like Wikipedia, the same standards should apply with even greater force.