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10/1/2009
12:03 PM
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Wikipedia Trusts The Crowd, Almost

Wikipedia is changing the way it updates entries on living people, and will require an "experienced volunteer" to review and approve information before posting. I'm not surprised by the decision, and I suspect there are more changes coming.

Wikipedia is changing the way it updates entries on living people, and will require an "experienced volunteer" to review and approve information before posting. I'm not surprised by the decision, and I suspect there are more changes coming.It's big, paradigm-challenging stuff, though, sort of like putting up a statue of Zeus in your local church and suggesting that he get a portion of each Sunday's service. Wikipedia is all about the wisdom of crowds: infinite numbers of anonymous individuals who aggregate on specific topics, providing the broadest, and thus most unbiased and likely consensus on facts. It wrests control of the past from old white guys and their institutional conventions. The crowd can determine truth better, faster, and more often.

Only it can't.

Well, that's not fair: it can sometimes, but other times it can't, or doesn't, depending on such variables as purposeful manipulation, or the fact that conventional (or popular) wisdom is in large part dependent on time and place (i.e. it's fungible). The same influences muck up authoritative proclamations from the dustiest of establishment voices, too, but at least you know who is doing the spinning (and why, mostly). Both are imperfect.

So it all boils down to a question of belief, really: do we get closer to "truth" via the conclusions of anonymous crowds, or the declarations of recognized experts? I don't doubt that Wikipedia's guiding philosophy remains intact. The masses are to be trusted unequivocally. The "experienced volunteer" role might be a temporary step toward a more purist, crowdsourced solution.

But I wonder maybe if it's not so temporary.

The question has serious implications for how we conceive and deliver brands. Marketers have been led to believe that they should literally "give up" brands to users, much like Wikipedia wants to let the crowd decide what's what. I've never understood the practical realities of the idea. Companies need to have the credibility and reliability to tell things to would-be buyers, not just pose as fellow participants in conversations, don't they?

Wikipedia's changes to its update policies suggest that the crowd needs a little help. We'll see if it's just a glitch in its canon, or whether the statue stays indefinitely.

Jonathan Salem Baskin writes the Dim Bulb blog and is the author of Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, coming in November.

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