The Priesthood

Recently it seems that in discussions with computer science people about political issues I often hear the statement "They just don't understand X!". And of course, this is true - the majority of people on this planet just don't understand computers and computing. And they don't really get why and how some systems work.

Are they stupid? No, of course not! I can't fix my car motor and I don't even want to think about trying brain surgery. But I am a computer scientist, so it is my job to explain to people how things work. Repeatedly, if necessary.

But it appears that many in my field feel themselves to be members of some technologically elite priesthood. The know the magic incantations to bring printers to life, find lost files, discover the answers to important questions and to weave intricate applications for solving some problem (hopefully without introducing new problems). And they like it this way - they don't really want the rest of the world to be able to deal with computers, after all, that would put them out of a job, wouldn't it? And it is fun to make jokes about the "lusers".

I am reminded on a book by Ted Nelson, the father of hypermedia, called Computer Lib. It was published in 1974 (right, that is not a typo. And wow, these are selling used for serious money, I better take care of mine). The first paragraph:

Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do. Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances, computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more and more about computers, but to most people it's just one big blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling to explain things or answer your questions. Stereotyped notions develop about computers operating in fixed ways -- and so confusion increases. The chasm between laymen and computer people widens fast and dangerously. [...] This book is therefore devoted to the premise that EVERYBODY SHOULD UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS."
Well said Ted, but unfortunately, it doesn't look like people were paying attention. 35 years later, this is still very true.

Nelson introduced the word "Cybercrud", defined as "putting things over on people using computers."

If I look closely at the current relevancy debate surrounding the Wikipedia, I see the same mechanism. There is the priesthood of the active people behind the Wikipedia (admin or not). They understand the baroque system (more or less) that has been built that is rather scary for new users. Oh, they complain about too much to do and very few new people, but is it any wonder? They make it so difficult to join the priesthood. And in a way, they have created "PediaCrud". I'll define that as "putting things over on people using the Wikipedia".

This includes all the trolls, who deface the Wikipedia just because they can. It includes the people who write lengthy novels for a lemma, instead of breaking it into a dozen or so more manageable chunks. It includes the deleters who want to keep the Wikipedia "clean" and "relevant".

But what about the users of the Wikipedia? Why do they come, millions a second, to the Wikipedia? What are they looking for? No, they don't want to read a 25 page treatise on Prussia. An encyclopedia (even the EB) strives to give people a quick overview of the lemma, and points to places to get more information, if necessary.

The users want a fast system that is pretty good. They want a system that is easy to use. They don't care about the authors or how the article was written. They just want to know more about a term they picked up somewhere. And many are willing to contribute their mite for the general good. But they don't want to have to register YetAnotherUserName with YetAnotherPassword and fuss with a system and then when they push save maybe discover that there is a concurrent user editing the same page.

The Wikipedia must get better - in usability. The Wikipedia must get better - in broader coverage, lemmata in areas that are not broadly covered. The Wikipedia authors must learn to edit, work with the texts and get them tighter, cleaner, more neutral, better verified.

Above all, they have to get away from the notion that they are somehow the high priests of Wiki-hood. Or the apostate, pointing fingers at the priests and taunting them. Quit wasting your energy on fighting and get down to writing.

[Idea developed during an interview with a Spiegel writer about the Wikipedia Wars.]


Fefe said...

I think the "press agency" model should be applied to Wikipedia, too. Articles written and distributed by agencies like the Associated Press or Deutsche Presseagentur are purposefully written so that the important stuff is that the beginning. You can stop reading at any point and know that the text you did not read only contains stuff the press agency thinks is less important than what you have read so far.

Wikipedia should not strive to have small articles that direct me elsewhere. I'm happy with Wikipedia having long articles where the top part explains the generic premise and then directs me inside the long article to the part I was particularly interested in.

And if the short blurb at the top is written like AP and DPA would write it, so that I can stop reading at any point, that would be ideal.

I say that because if we start judging articles to be "too long", we get the same relevance deletionism that we currently get regarding full articles. We will have marauding hordes of unwashed Wikipedia trolls deleting whole paragraphs out of articles because they deem them uninteresting or "too long". Please do not step into that same trap again!

WiseWoman said...

As long as the information is available in chunks as well, there can still be a long article. I'm just allergic to only long articles.

Case in point: deletion discussion for Nov. 25 in the German Wikipedia. The entry on "Top of the World (Brandy-Song)" is marked for deletion because the same info is on the album page.

If I hear the song on the radio in the morning and want to know more (like when was it first released, and isn't this a Carpenter's song?), I don't *know* the artist or the album. I just know the name of the song. I don't want to wade through the entire album. I just want the facts on this song. So the information needs to be here and in the main album.

Sure, we get into update anomalies. So what? It will eventually get fixed. It is not deadly, as it would be on a database. A hypermedium needs small, linked chunks. Some of the chunks can, of course, be longer.