Communications scholar Richard Smith has written an insightful post about Wikipedia after being interviewed for a Globe and Mail story on the topic. He argues that Wikipedia poses the notion of knowledge as a social process and not a product, and in doing so, advocates knowledge as a kind of democracy.
I think this point is valid. Something that needs to be mentioned here, though, is how the knowledge process (just like the democratic process) can be shaped by powerful interests, even in something as apparently self-correcting as a wiki.
Suppose everyone assumes X to be true (even though it is not). Then the wiki can end up containing uncorrected falsehoods and falls victim to the tyrrany of the majority. And everyone ends up believing something that is not true.
Even more sinister: suppose everyone is exposed to an advertising campaign that tells them X is true (when it is not), and they believe it. Then the wiki could end up containing falsehoods and falls victim to the tyrrany of the advertiser. And everyone ends up believing something that is untrue. Maybe at their own personal expense. Or danger.
I suppose the relativity of truth in an age of half-truths on sale to the highest (or is it the lowest?) bidder is besides the point of Richard’s post. Still, I believe that this is a serious problem that wikis don’t inherently overcome. And yes – this applies equally well to dictionaries, or bibles, or press releases from automobile manufacturers that declare how clean their new technologies are, or how ethical their workplace conditions are.
In a post last week I mused on the topic of trustbacks and their utility in rating the opinions of others as a bulwark against potential problems with music sharing sites like last.fm. Transposing this question to the matter at hand, could we map/moderate truth in the same way that we can map/moderate taste, by being as critical about the reporters as we are about the reported? And if so, how could a system of trustbacks be kept in check, to make sure no one became a privileged arbiter of truth illegitimately?
Just some ideas. Have a good weekend.