Monday, September 06, 2004

Can a Wiki Work? 

I am a slow learner, I guess. I have been reading about wikis for some time and haven't paid much attention to them. Essentially, they are, according to one online dictionary,

a server program that allows users to collaborate in forming the content of a Web site. With a wiki, any user can edit the site content, including other users' contributions, using a regular Web browser. Basically, a wiki Web site operates on a principle of collaborative trust.

The worm in the idea, it seems to me, is that last term "collaborative trust." There are multiple views of humanity. One is that humans as a whole are good, and one can trust them to act wisely. Another is that humans are self-interested and do not act objectively. This latter view was exemplified by President Reagan's quote concerning the Russians, " Trust but verify." Auditing systems are built on the same principle. One trusts another to guard money and make correct entries, but one also systematically verifies this is being done.

It seems to me that "collaborative trust" can fail where there is no systematic editing process. Depending on others to automatically verify is shortsighted. There are multiple reasons why this is so beyond self-interest. There might not be another who knows the facts as well as the original person who made the entry. Others "assume" this individual is correct. There might an individual who merchandises his or her view of events, whether or not this view is accurate. There might be a reliance on conventional wisdom. In other words, expressed views are "politically correct" but not necessarily right, and other views are not welcomed. This is also called "groupthink." There might be a general lack of interest in the material that has been published and error resides on the wiki unchallenged.

Despite all this, I think a wiki can work under controlled circumstances where there is incentive for individuals to get it right. Such a circumstance, for example, may exist in a newsroom where there are penalties for allowing error to creep into reports too frequently and in a corporate environment with similar sanctions. But, a wiki encyclopedia? That concerns me.


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