Wikipedia is a work in progress

Wikipedia is a work in progress: That Wikipedia is a work in progress may be obvious to the hardcore Wikipedians (the worldwide corps of volunteers who are heavy contributors, editors and administrators and other levels of hierarchy I haven’t quite figured out yet) attending Wikimania. But even they realize (and seem concerned) that a visitor arriving on a Wikipedia entry via, say, a Google search results page, might not understand how fluid and ever-changing the information on that page can be. That anyone can change the information on the page is a rather radical concept that web-users who are used to “consuming” content on the web find hard to understand (especially students with assignments due the next morning). And with the opportunity for fun and abuse so accessible, it’s perhaps surprising that only five percent of the edits are done so with a malicious intent.

Most of the Wikipedians (and these folks are from all over the world) I observed today seem genuinely and greatly concerned with how to improve the quality of the information found on Wikipedia. As anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry, what’s to prevent people from being malicious? (Jason Calacanis contends the unfriendly non-WYSIWYG admin area of Wikipedia is unfriendly by design because it cuts down on random contributions. While Jason makes a convincing argument, and it’s one I’ve wondered about often during the development of a project using the Mediawiki platform, I think it’s just one of those features they haven’t gotten around to improving as tens of thousands of contributors have figured out how it works. By the way, I think the Wikihow folks have done a nice job of adding a simplified edit overlay on their Mediawiki-run site.)

In a session I attended today led by an ubber-Wikipedian named Alex Schenek, he quoted someone (sorry for the lack of credit) as saying one should think of Wikipedia as the ultimate first draft. To readers, Schenek warned, “Wikipedia is an encylopedia composed by many people who are not all experts — so don’t assume they are. To administrators and contributors to the site, Schenek stressed to “source as much as possible from as many reliable sources as possible.” Citation (as in footnoting or pointing to the original source of information found in an article) is a key to increasing the quality and credibility of information found on Wikipedia.

More promising to me (I trust people, but know how tempting it must be to 15 year olds or ax-grinders to mess with something so easy to have fun with, or disagree with), are some technical solutions. Brion Vibber, one of the “2 1/2 IT people” on the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation, explained “they” (which, I assume, is the open-source development community supporting the Mediawiki software) are working on a feature that will allow for the “tagging” of a specific version of a Wikipedia entry. In other words, someone wishing to point to a Wikipedia entry will be able to “tag” it — add a key word — and then be able to link to that explicitly tagged version of the entry. That means that you would not have to worry that someone will change the entry that you point to tonight with the concern that someone will change it into something completely different tomorrow. Such tagging of versions would also allow (in theory — I’m not sure this is part of the plan) for the tagging of “kid-friendly” versions of entries or “rexblog-approved” versions of entries.

Another possible feature Brion mentioned is one that will be familiar to anyone who has ever commented on a weblog. It’s like that field that allows a commenter to include a link to a specific URL. I could be misinterpreting what Brion was saying, but it seemed like he was implying that at some point, a user registration on Wikipedia will include the option of associating your account (and Wiki identity) with a specific URL, your blog, for example. Supporting the OpenID approach was also mentioned by Brion. By allowing the linkage of an identity of a contributor to Wikipedia to his or her online identity elsewhere on the web, the credibility of their contributions will increase, the theory goes.

Addendum: Meredith the Librarian blogged Vibber’s session with more detail.