Sunday, August 13, 2006

Wikipedia, Credentialism, and Control

It seems that the latest trend by defenders of the status quo is to criticize Wikipedia. Here's one such article:

The core criticism and theme of this article is that Wikipedia is unverified (not blessed by people with expensive pieces of paper on their walls), and therefore is not credible. That's simply faulty logic, and certainly a misunderstanding of the word credible.

Whether something is credible or not is entirely dependent upon the reasoning faculties of the person interpreting the information.

Now, "unverified" may indeed result in lower quality of information; however, for probably 95% of Wikipedia users, the quality of information present is more than sufficient to meet their needs. Due to the constant review process that's inherent to its model, it's also not exactly accurate to say that Wikipedia is unverified information.

Of course, this entire debate arises from people who are stuck in the old paradigm: the privileged few controlling and disseminating information.

Wikipedia uses a new paradigm of distributed and shared expertise. Existing hierarchies are threatened by a system in which an individual's actual knowledge counts for more than the pieces of paper on their wall and the letters after their name. Credentials are used to silence people and restrict access, yet lose their power in Wikipedia's model.

Consider how most people go through university: reading as little as possible, doing all-nighters to finish assignments they didn't bother starting till they were nearly due, cramming for exams and then promptly forgetting everything they learned as soon as the exam is finished. Really, the exalted status we give to those holding credentials is quite laughable. Of course, credentialism has been on the rise due to a confluence in recent decades of businesses abdicating their responsibility to train their own people for jobs, and of post-secondary educational institutions becoming mere businesses.

Wikipedia scoffs at credentialism, which impedes the free flow of information by restricting it to privileged classes. That is the crux of the issue. Those with a vested interest in perpetuation of old-style control of information by the few, or who prefer hierarchical organizational structures, will continue to criticize Wikipedia. People who embrace the paradigm of shared information and equal access will recognize that Wikipedia represents the future.

In a sense, it all boils down to control. Those who value telling others what to do instinctively dislike Wikipedia. Those who value freedom instinctively love it.

Addendum: Nature (the science journal) conducted a blind peer-review investigation of the accuracy of Wikipedia articles versus Encyclopaedia Britannica articles. They found that the number of errors present in each was comparable; four errors per Wikipedia article compared to three errors per Britannica article. Of all the errors found, only eight were considered serious, and they were distributed equally: four for Wikipedia, and four for Britannica. Here's the Nature article.