Truth, Taste and Wikis

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 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.

3 thoughts on “Truth, Taste and Wikis”

  1. Sean, thanks for noticing the post and for a thoughtful comment. I think you are right – wiki’s don’t inherently overcome anything, and especially not powerful interests. But we have to avoid painting ourselves into a corner with absolutes. Like the comment about “everyone” believing X. The only saviour against powerful interests are other people. Not technology. And not everyone will believe X, even if they see the advertising. For example, I watched television this evening and saw endless claims about the powers of shampoo to transform hair from a variety of problems that hair – yours and mine, I guess, although the models had very long hair – seems to develop in the sun or from old age, or when it is greasy or when it is dry. Anyway, I believe none of it. I am fighting back against shampoo ads. And I don’t need technology to do that. Well, maybe I do, since I am writing about it in your blog. Hmmm.

    Anyway, what I DO want to say is that you raise a good point. We shouldn’t be naive (as the famous professor of journalism from Thompson Rivers University pointed out in the Globe article) about the powers of wikis. Or pens. But I am powerfully persuaded – perhaps naively so – about the power of human beings to think for themselves. And, given a wiki, or a soapbox, or a pen and paper, to tell others. Let’s hope it continues.

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