September 28, 2004

Wikipedia: They've Got the Geeks, but Not the Nerds

Much has been noted about Ethan Zuckerman's study of Wikipedia's breadth and depth, or lack thereof. Cory Doctorow thinks they need to cover non-nerdy subjects. But I'd say the problem is that geeks are online, we think about computers a lot, and so it shows in Wikipedia. One of Ethan's examples:

The nerds, the people interested in computers only as a means to a communication, knowledge management and connecting end, need to be enticed to work on Wikipedia, to share their extensive knowledge of subjects outside 'computers as sport' or 'politics as sport' which is what the original blogosphere spent lots of energy on, and what Wikipedia now seems very focused on. Geeks being technology obsessed, and nerds being bookish, is the stereotype I'm referring to here, btw. So I would expect, following this politically incorrect stereotype, that someone interested in Chinua Achebe would either be just a nerd, or a geek and nerd combo. But if it's literary criticism and a catalogue of Achebe's work and life that you're looking for, or some such non-geeky topic, especially with an international flavor, I'd turn to a nerdy expert first and not Wikipedia.

And in the meantime, how do you get the nerds? Well, for starters, really good UI, really good social interaction, something that doesn't just appeal to geeks who code and write blogs and Wikipedia posts on mobile phone standards. It's got to work well for more than the geeks, or it's never gonna cover more than geeky topics. That's not to say that I don't like the looks of Wikipedia. But it does require a certain amount of understanding, though they have made it pretty easy. But it's not clear what happens before you do things, and when you are in the middle of editing, it's not clear what's happening without a lot of FAQ and other reading, and still, you must understand some terminology, learn about the protocols, etc. For those not technical, I can imagine the number one fear using Wikipedia would be, what if I ruin something. Well, we know that you can't ruin anything, but if that is a fear, and users with expertise and not much technical confidence feel it, expertise will not be shared. It's a hard one, because often with new systems, users are very tentative, cautious, and if they feel they might break something, they often won't do it unless someone is there to reassure. So would that mean that to draw in the nerds, we will need to teach people, one at a time?

I looked up Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and because I've read all his books, seen all the movies he's written screenplays for based on stories in his books, and seen him speak, I was disappointed. Yes, the basics were there, but the entry felt completely devoid of the richness and pleasure I've enjoyed from his work and voice. There was no mention of the movies, which can now be rented, but traveled the film festival circuit, the gravely voice he speaks with when reading, the way he answers questions from audience members very different in experience and background from him, yet he manages to connect so deeply with the questioner. No mention of the short stories, some of which are brilliant, and make beautiful use of the short format, and how different those are to experience from the long works (which are really really long.) It's been some time since I read these things, and I don't think that just liking them qualifies me to add or change the entry. But I'd love to have someone currently up to date on this add to it.

Nerds are needed to finish this project. People whose expertise is deep in subjects that have nothing to do with technology and that live around the globe, but who can provide insight and experience with the people and subjects, enliven them. I hope Wikipedia goes soon from an early adopter tool, to something nerds can pick up and contribute to easily.

Maybe the answer is, every geek needs to pick one novice user, with some expertise, and teach the system to them. Get them hooked, and sharing their knowledge.

Posted by Mary Hodder at September 28, 2004 10:27 PM | TrackBack

It's been some time since I read these things, and I don't think that just liking them qualifies me to add or change the entry. But I'd love to have someone currently up to date on this add to it.

But this is the difference between Wikipedia and an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias have to be written by experts; if you wrote the whole article on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it wouldn't be that good. But there are parts you can add, and you should add what you can. If the films aren't mentioned, mention them; grab a list from IMDB. Add a short paragraph that says what you know about the short stories. If an expert comes along and has more to say, she'll say it; she'll be more likely to say it if there's something small there on the topic already.

Each of us individually isn't qualified to write on things we know about but aren't experts on, but all of us together are. Edit fearlessly.

Posted by: Joe Gratz at September 29, 2004 11:58 AM

In an random anecdotal survey, I just noticed a similarly significant difference in wikipedia's richness and depth of information between two other authors, Jorge Amado vs. Douglas Adams. Seems to point directly at your hypothesis, considering the wildly different levels of tech-geek fandom they inspired....

Posted by: Nina at September 29, 2004 11:10 PM