Pseudopedia/General Criticisms

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edit index Pseudopedia/General Criticisms
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General Criticisms

Various readers and editors of Wikipedia, and administrators of rival Encyclopedias, see many valid reasons for criticizing Wikipedia. Readers and editors often have different concerns, but chief among them are:

Lack of Authenticity

This is the biggest problem: Wikipedia's purpose as a reference work has been questioned by many diverse sources. The lack of authority and accountability are considered disqualifying factors by most people. For example, librarian Philip Bradley acknowledged in an interview with The Guardian that the concept behind the site was in theory a "lovely idea", but that he would not use it in practice and is:

"not aware of a single librarian who would [use it]. The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window."
However, Wikipedians commonly encounter this argument. Wikipedia, they say, is a more of an independent source than most traditional encyclopedias, and the reliability is potentially greater than that of a traditional source, since errors can be corrected immediately. Yet, this is only a potential strength, as in reality, Wikipedia cannot be relied upon for accuracy, except on a limited range of topics. Wikipedians say one should not solely rely on any one source in their research. Yet, critics must counter that relying on a trusted source is the fundamental use of an encyclopedia.

Ironically Low Quality of Writing

A common Wikipedia maxim is "Out of mediocrity, excellence." The site founder admits that the variation in quality between different articles and topics is certainly not insignificant, but that he considers the average quality to be "pretty good", getting better by the day. The "competing" Encyclopedia Britannica claims it does not feel threatened. "The premise of Wikipedia is that continuous improvement will lead to perfection; that premise is completely unproven," said the reference work's executive editor, Ted Pappas, to The Guardian.

It should be noted, however, that Wikipedia articles have been referenced in enhanced perspectives provided online in the journal Science, one of the most prestigious (and unmercifully selective) scientific publications in the world. The first of these perspectives to provide a hyperlink to Wikipedia was "A White Collar Protein Senses Blue Light", by Hartmut Linden, in the August, 2002 issue. Since then, dozens of enhanced perspectives have provided hyperlinks to Wikipedia. A search on "Wikipedia" in Science's web site (weblink) turns up 43 instances as of December, 2004, with the perspective "Turning on a Dime", by Ulrike K. Mueller and David Lentink, as the latest in that date range.

Systemic Biases

Wikipedia's systemic bias of covering some topics in much greater depth than others is also considered significant, something that even the site's proponents admit. In an interview with The Guardian, the executive team of Encyclopedia Britannica noted that:

''"people write of things they're interested in, and so many subjects don't get covered; and news events get covered in great detail. The entry on Hurricane Frances is five times the length of that on Chinese Art, and the entry on Coronation Street is twice as long as the article on Tony Blair."
One user on a Wikipedia discussion board noted that the Wikipedia entry on Tony Blair was still several times longer than the corresponding entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, but this is a non sequitur. One should note that a vast number of Wikipedias articles cover topics which would not be included in print encyclopedias.

Pet Theories and Perspectives

A more difficult problem to address is that even when topics are covered on Wikipedia, they are covered only from what seems to be a "neutral point of view" to the current participants, which is not the same as:
  • the current readership, especially not readers who encounter print or other uneditable versions
  • the potential readership

While some critics have raised this issue within the Wikipedia Community, they seem to consider their criticisms to have been generally rejected. For example, a 2002 attempt to ask questions about what would be required to prepare Wikipedia for the one billionth user went nowhere. Since that time there have been numerous efforts to address the difference between neutral point of view and the perspective of new contributors with views typical of some large group of people, but not typical of the average Wikipedia contributor. In short, new contributors who do not conform to the prevailing Wikipedian consensus (where such a consensus exists) are generally viewed as trolls and their views are dismissed. New user's dissenting contributions are liable to be labelled as "POV" (a derogatory, if ironic, term on Wikipedia) if there is sufficient administrative support to attack or delete it.

In response to this issue, a group of Wikipedians on the English Wikipedia have established a WikiProject, Wikipedia:WikiProject Countering systemic bias. They have a list of open tasks which detail various areas they have determined need to be resolved.

Unecessary Editing of Original Authors/Scholars

"I don't want my text edited by any passer-by! It's mine!"
All wikis benefit greatly from this practice. It is difficult to single-handedly write the perfect article, but it becomes easier when working together, at least, in theory. In fact, many editors experience a strong "team" effect on Wikipedia, but just as many experience unecessary edits and heartless reverting of their work, and this pushes would-be contributors away.

Such unecessary editing results in "edit wars" and "flame wars", in which two or more contributors revert each other's edits, contributing nothing to the community. Wikipedia, unlike Usenet, has the possibility and power of enforcing its community-agreed standards on new users, even when its own democratic, "wiki way" principles are in conflict with such enforcement.

Those familiar with interactions between individuals on Usenet, for example, are accustomed to such wars, and can easily tune them out. When these tendencies to academic conflict are combined with Wikipedia's powerful community activism, such wars are defended as "encouraging creative and collegial collaboration". Wikipedians believe there is no such thing as "other people's work", because there's no ownership of information, however, original authors will quickly counter that while information is free, expression is not, and so strong egos can and do easily collide over the control of their expressions. The community always wins, though, regardless of the truth of that free information.

Not only do people have the ability to edit other peoples' work, but they can edit other peoples' comments and votes on articles for deletion, thus changing or deleting other peoples' votes, making it appear that people made comments that they did not make, and removing other peoples' comments.

Tedious Battles of Persistence

Numerous contributors complain that editing on Wikipedia is a very tedious excersise in futility in cases of conflict. They frequently note that "fanatic", even "kooky" contributors with idiosyncractic, out-of-mainstream, non-scientific belief systems can easily push their point of view, because nobody has the time and energy to fight them, and because they may be higly-placed in the Wikipedian bureaucracy. Such wars can be highly academic, but nevertheless draining for all involved.

Partly in response to his battles with followers of Lyndon LaRouche, one prolific, high profile contributor, stated in October 2004 that he would scale down his contributions to Wikipedia considerably because of, what he considers, the too open nature of Wikipedia. Larry Sanger, a Nupedia and Wikipedia founder and early key contributor, sees this too-open nature as "anti-elitism", and calls for widespread changes to Wikipedia so that contributers who have credentials can pierce through the walls of the community.

Such sentiments are hardly isolated to a few of what the remaining Wikipedians call "problem users". The problem, though, is not to allow credentials to overcome facts, and so the Wikipedians have a point by being so open. The edit battles rage on behind the scenes, and the most persistent editors usually win, often those who are entrenched within the Wikipedian community.

Flame Wars are Reinforced by Design

Some people argue that talk pages of Wikipedia have ended up like Usenet, often seen as "just a bunch of flame wars" - bigoted statements on Wikipedian's talk pages are not uncommon. A response to this criticism is that Wikipedia is a "(Meatball:BarnRaising|project)", which makes it different from usenet, a debate forum. However, the fact that Wikipedia is a project makes flame war situations worse. On Wikipedia, flames can emerge when an editor feels their contributions they've put time and energy into editing are being ruined, especially due to the tensions listed above. On usenet, there is no such project for another user to ruin, and no text can be edited by other users. Wikipedia therefore becomes home to a multitude of turf battles.

For example, on February 14, 2006 at the Wikipedia article on the Iraq war *(link) contained a link to a recent video showing British soldiers torturing children. This section was repeatedly removed by a member of the United States army. When the section kept being put back into the article for the sake of historical accuracy, a user with administrator priviledges banned the contributor in order to silence him.

The actual material was not in question. Nor was its relavence to the Iraq war or its newsworthiness. If such politically motivated censorship is allowed, how can the general public trust Wikipedia?

Assumptions of Bad Faith

Wikipedia's ostensible guidelines are to assume good faith of other editors, but despite this, editors on Wikipedia persist on making bad faith assumptions about others. Some bad faith assumptions people make on Wikipedia are usually speculations about the intentions of the other editors. People are often accused of trying to use Wikipedia to promote a point of view simply because they either write about a controversial topic or make contributions that are biased. It is also an ad hominem to speculate about the agenda or intentions of another editor. Wikipedia editors should focus on the content of the articles, not the people who write the content.

However, people on Wikipedia should realize that even biased intentions can be made with good faith and could even be an attempt at neutrality. People are only human and they make mistakes. Though it could also be the case that the person claiming the contributions are biased is the one making the mistake.

Conform or You're Reverted

A common type of post on the User talk pages of newer users is often something along the lines of:

You'll have to conform to the style already present if you want to contribute, or it will just be reverted as "nonsense" by those of us without your background. -Omegatron
While this is just one example, it is not isolated, and brilliantly serves to illustrate that Wikipedia functions more like a community, one demanding conformity of thinking, than an encyclopedia, where knowledge and truth are paramount. Though many new users do indeed push the boundaries of what is acceptable to any wiki community, the sad fact is that new contributors to Wikipedia will be expected to keep closely to the party line on many issues, if they are to survive their edit wars. This feeds the problem of lacking authenticity, as well as the other criticisms, when such a user, now considered a "problem user" by Wikipedians, has true knowledge in an area in which the community has taken a false approach. The users' edits will be reverted, and the article(s) in question will remain hopelessly wrong or "slanted", solely due to the strength of the community, rather than the burden of facts.

Multiplied Search Results (Google Bombs)

Since Wikipedia, as all Wikis, contains a large number of internally linked pages, it receives high rankings from Google for particular searches. This can result in confusing research, because often identical Wikipedia Mirror articles can overpopulate results. This makes it more likely that one's web searches will return identical and superfluous articles, a problem complicated by the fact that many, many pages on Wikipedia are wrong, biased, plagarized, or just poorly written. So, a Google bomb from Wikipedia on a subject of a reader's research can become a compounded research effort which does not benefit the reader.

The fact that Wikipedia and its mirrors tend to monopolize the Google hits means that what is written on Wikipedia will be read by a wider audience. This means that if a user perceives an article to be biased and cannot reach a compromize with the other editors, then a large number of people will read a biased article when researching the respective topic and the user will not be able to have his or her side of the controversy represented. This makes conflicts on Wikipedia a much more sensitive issue.

Promotion of Commercial Advertising

Wikipedia has been also criticized for effectively promoting commercial advertising, Spam, because it allows other Websites the (MeatBall:RightToFork| right to fork), thanks to its GNU license. Many of these sites, unlike Wikinfo, merely use copies of Wikipedia articles in order to create banner and contextual advertising, with the help of customized code mining the wiki-content of the pages. This amplifies the Google Bomb problem above, and at the same time, encourages associations of commercial interests to the WikiSphere. In fairness, the GNU license also prevents Wikipedia from dictating how its content is used. Yet, happily allowing, even promoting, such bombing is tantamount to the self-promotion of the Wikipedia community - something which contradicts Wikipedia's pedantic "wiki way".

Reliance on Poorly Designed Wiki Software

Wikipedia's software has been criticized on many levels. It is less than elegant in many ways, both for end users and for developers, even since being updated with new "monobook" and other skins. MediaWiki development is a classic case of design by committee, with multiple overlapping extension solutions to problems, none of which may work as advertised. Instead of simplicity of form, MediaWiki seems programmed to be as messy and slow as possible, and for developers, is overly complex and buggy, leading to problematic installations on non-Wikimedia servers.

The main criticism is very much related to that against Wikipedia. Due to Wikipedia's relative popularity in the WikiSphere, its software, MediaWiki, has received undue exposure and may be installed for wikis which cannot afford to surmount its many problems, such as the need to constantly police the wiki because of security holes, Wikipedian assumptions of how wikis look and read, and generally poor or ugly design. More than any other wiki software, MediaWiki-run wikis can easily be overrun with wikispam and vandalism, and hog server resources more than any other wiki engine can. The exposure of Wikipedia has also allowed MediaWiki developers to become MediaWiki fanatics, pushing their own disorganized code and sloppy, Wikipedia-biased pseudo-"standards" on independent wiki installations and administrators.

The main fork of MediaWiki, XML standards-based GetWiki, as well as its developer, have been subject to propaganda attacks from Wikipedians since GetWiki's inception on Wikinfo in January, 2004. But MediaWiki also steals mindshare from installations which might better be served by UseModWiki, PhpWiki, or some other elegant wiki engine. The Groupthink effect on Wikipedia works just as strongly with MediaWiki development, where often byzantine code extensions are favoured over simplicity, only because the poor solutions come by way of a Wikipedian way of working, to solve merely Wikipedian demands.

See GetWiki:Overview for how these issues are addressed in GetWiki

Overbold Editors

Wikipedia encourages editors to "be bold" when editing articles, however some editors are too bold and make drastic changes to articles without discussion. This can include:
  • Merging two articles on topics that are vaguely related but are still better left in different articles.
  • Renaming an article. Sometimes an article cannot easily be renamed back, if an editor has edited the article at the original name (which would be a redirector to a new name if it wasn't edited) since it has been renamed.
  • Major reorganization of articles or talk pages.
When making such drastic changes, people should propose the changes to the talk page first to see what the other editors think about the change and give them time to state objections. However, some people are overbold with editing and make changes without considering that other editors will not appreciate what they are doing and do not like the burden of cleaning up the mess of overbold editors.

Some content adapted from the Wikinfo article "Critical_views_of_Wikipedia/General_Criticisms" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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[ last updated: 12:17pm EDT - Mon, Sep 22 2008 ]
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M.R.M. Parrott