Elitist Wikipedia Criticism

by on June 18, 2007 · 12 comments

Here’s the other specific criticism of peer production you’ll find in Carr’s critique of peer production:

But for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer.

Carr doesn’t even have the basic facts right here. To start with, the Flintstones entry, at some 5672 words, is actually only about 50 percent longer than the Homer entry, with around 3822 words. But more to the point, the entry on homer includes links to entries on the Homeric Question (1577 words), Ancient accounts of Homer (1183 words), Homeric scholarship (4799 words), Homeric Greek (582 words), and The Historicity of the Illiad (1720 words). If my math is right, that’s 13,683 words, more than double the number of words in the Flintstone’s article. (The Flintstone’s article doesn’t appear to be divided up into sub-sections as the Homer article is, although there are entries on Flintstones-related topics, such as the characters in the show and the actors who played them. But on the other hand, there are also lengthy entries on The Iliad, The Odyssey, The geography of the Odyssey, and The Trojan War.


I bet with some digging I could unearth a lot more entries related to each topic. I don’t have time to do such an exhaustive survey and come up with definitive figures. But the far more important question is not how different Wikipedia articles compare to each other, but how these articles compare to the corresponding articles in Britannica. The article on Homer appears to be 5281 words—longer than the main Wikipedia article, but much shorter than all of the Wikipedia articles on Homeric topics, most of which don’t have counterparts in the Britannica.

The Flintstone’s doesn’t appear to have an entry in Britannica at all, but the entry on William Hanna is a paltry 459 words, shorter than the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

So it appears that Wikipedia is slightly more comprehensive than Britannica about “serious” topics like Homer, but a lot more comprehensive on unserious topics like The Flintstones. If Carr prefers the Britannica to The Wikipedia based on its lack of coverage of The Flintstones, what word for this is there but “elitist”? Unlike a paper encyclopedia, adding more entries doesn’t cost anyone anything. If Carr isn’t interested in a topic, he doesn’t have to visit that entry. But some people apparently enjoyed creating the Flintstone’s entry, and hopefully some people enjoy reading it.

Indeed, this criticism is exactly the same as complaining that American Idol gets higher ratings than PBS, or that The Da Vinci Code sells more copies than War and Peace. The length of the article on Homer isn’t a judgment on Homer’s literary merits, any more than the Da Vinci Code’s sales statistics are a judgment on Dan Brown’s literary talents. Peer production, like free markets, are responsive to the desires of ordinary people. That’s one of its strengths, even if it leads to lengthy articles on subjects Carr doesn’t care for.

  • http://the0phrastus.typepad.com/ Chris Howard

    Perhaps Carr is objectng to the entry for Homer Simpson,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_simpson

    which, sadly, does appear to be about half that of the Flintstones.
    ;)

  • http://the0phrastus.typepad.com/ Chris Howard

    Perhaps Carr is objectng to the entry for Homer Simpson,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer_simpson

    which, sadly, does appear to be about half that of the Flintstones.

    ;)

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Hi Tim,

    Great article. Also (although kind of beside the point) is that going to the Britannica article (don’t get me started with the printed version) is that the apalling lack of links to other relevant articles or even the references used to create article in the Britannica version makes the article way less useful and highlights that using metrics like the length by itself is overly simplistic.

    All the wonderful linking in Wikipedia allows to see that Homer and the Flinstones are connected (as most things in life) by less than 6 degrees:

    - The Home article links to an article on the Iliad
    - Which links to an article on Troy, the 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt.
    - Which links to Warner Bros. the distributor of the movie.
    - And the article on Warner links to The Walt Disney Company, who owns ABC.
    - And the ABC article has a link to a nice article on The Flinstones.

    Yes, it turns out The Flinstones originally aired on ABC. I didn’t know that until today. Thanks, Homer!

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    oops. erratum:

    is that the apalling -> shows the appalling
    to create article -> to create the article

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    Hi Tim,

    Great article. Also (although kind of beside the point) is that going to the Britannica article (don’t get me started with the printed version) is that the apalling lack of links to other relevant articles or even the references used to create article in the Britannica version makes the article way less useful and highlights that using metrics like the length by itself is overly simplistic.

    All the wonderful linking in Wikipedia allows to see that Homer and the Flinstones are connected (as most things in life) by less than 6 degrees:

    - The Home article links to an article on the Iliad
    - Which links to an article on Troy, the 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt.
    - Which links to Warner Bros. the distributor of the movie.
    - And the article on Warner links to The Walt Disney Company, who owns ABC.
    - And the ABC article has a link to a nice article on The Flinstones.

    Yes, it turns out The Flinstones originally aired on ABC. I didn’t know that until today. Thanks, Homer!

  • http://eldiabloenlosdetalles.net Carlos

    oops. erratum:

    is that the apalling -> shows the appalling
    to create article -> to create the article

  • http://www.knowprose.com Taran Rampersad

    There is always the issue of, ‘What you enter may not be there tomorrow because Admin disagrees’. Elitism cuts both ways.

  • http://www.knowprose.com Taran Rampersad

    There is always the issue of, ‘What you enter may not be there tomorrow because Admin disagrees’. Elitism cuts both ways.

  • Helen Masters

    The whole Wikipedia concept is fatally flawed. The notion that one can produce an authoritative encyclopedia without any kind of editorial control is patently ridiculous.

    There is a far greater and more insidious threat to Wikipedia than simple character assassination or falsehood. It can broadly be labelled “infomercial content” (i.e. content that purports to be informative but has a commercial bias). A good example is the entry on Barcelona (Spain). The whole article reads like a tourist brochure and any reference to the city’s pollution problems is swiftly removed by an army of self-appointed censors. There are strong indications that the Barcelona Tourist Board (or its army of acolytes) has effectively hijacked the site. This kind of thing is going to become more prevalent as Wikipedia becomes better known. Basically, there is nothing that can be done to stop this corporate take-over of Wikipedia without editorial control yet such control runs counter to the whole Wiki ethos.

    The idea that “a community of users” is going to apply some common sense criteria regarding content is a mistaken one. In the case of the Barcelona entry, the influence of Catalan/Spanish speakers on both content and style is all too evident. The locals seem eager to “sell” their city to the wider world and to show off their appalling English. Wikipedia not only lacks the control mechanisms to stop them, it also wilfully fails to recognize it has a serious problem.

  • Helen Masters

    The whole Wikipedia concept is fatally flawed. The notion that one can produce an authoritative encyclopedia without any kind of editorial control is patently ridiculous.

    There is a far greater and more insidious threat to Wikipedia than simple character assassination or falsehood. It can broadly be labelled “infomercial content” (i.e. content that purports to be informative but has a commercial bias). A good example is the entry on Barcelona (Spain). The whole article reads like a tourist brochure and any reference to the city’s pollution problems is swiftly removed by an army of self-appointed censors. There are strong indications that the Barcelona Tourist Board (or its army of acolytes) has effectively hijacked the site. This kind of thing is going to become more prevalent as Wikipedia becomes better known. Basically, there is nothing that can be done to stop this corporate take-over of Wikipedia without editorial control yet such control runs counter to the whole Wiki ethos.

    The idea that “a community of users” is going to apply some common sense criteria regarding content is a mistaken one. In the case of the Barcelona entry, the influence of Catalan/Spanish speakers on both content and style is all too evident. The locals seem eager to “sell” their city to the wider world and to show off their appalling English. Wikipedia not only lacks the control mechanisms to stop them, it also wilfully fails to recognize it has a serious problem.

  • Jubelum

    Furthermore, as Wiki editors become longer-standing they (seem to) become more entrenched, resulting in them taking owenership of articles (despite the fact that this is — offically — forbidden) seeing to it that their and only their view of the subject is allowed to appear. Added to this they (or some of them) work together to control editing access to the entire 'pedia by blocking (almost always through one of them who is “neutral” to the particular dispute) editors with whom they have disputes, and then banning them. And if that editor has the temerity to attempt to edit under a second identity they and everyone who coems from their IP area are banned, as being “sockpuppets”, “meatpuppets” and other Wiki-jargon offenders.
    They are careful not to let anyone call this the “Wiki-Cabal”

  • http://www.omcomc.com omc

    I think it is very hard to write an article to wikipedia, and its an oligopoly. For instance we wanted to include nicebookmarks.com in bookmark section, and they simply deleted it, why? It is “original” info – well if it benefits people who cares, there are so many hidden unnecessary stuff anyway.

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