January 31, 2008
On Wikipedia and Ironic Statements: Another Apropos Analogy

Another anecdote I've been sharing increasingly with others--apologies to those readers who've heard me share this in private conversation--is a conversation I had while doing some research as a graduate student with an executive for a media production company. At the time, I was doing research into the history of the company's brand, and I had searched far and wide for information on when their production company's brand had launched.

The production company has a weak corporate presence online, and the only place I could find anyone venture an explanation for when the current name had been used was Wikipedia. While I find the collective intelligence that Wikipedia offers incredibly useful, I also realize that there are all sorts of gaps in knowledge cobbled together by users, so I wanted to seek out confirmation from an "official source" who I felt was in a much better position to clarify this fact, as opposed to the anonymous. I was particularly afraid that this company's Wikipedia page may not have been as heavily edited as more hot-button pages, so it stood a greater chance of being wrong.

I asked the company representative who had asked to be the point-person for all my inquiries while I was doing research, to which that person replied, "I would not rely on Wikipedia for academic research."

At first, I was at a loss on how to respond. Seems that something was lost in translation, considering that I myself was not confident in the Wikipedia answer and thus wanted confirmation from an official source. However, rather than give me confirmation, or even admit that he or she didn't know, this person chose to dismiss the question in what I read as a deflecting manner, creating a red herring point that completely ignored the actual substantive question being posed.

What's worse, this was the sort of common knowledge question that was not asking for even slightly sensitive information, nor anything that seemed to be obscure information to an outsider.

I actually wrote in response:

I agree that a healthy dose of skepticism has to come along with anything on Wikipedia, but it's a good place to go when there is no official source to ask otherwise. But, that's why I came to you. Of course, you're talking to the wrong institution in debunking the "collective intelligence" of the people, though...since there are a lot of research groups at MIT looking at the "wisdom of crowds," power of the blogosphere and fan communities, etc.

But the question has remained lingering in my mind for the past year. Seems this is part of a greater disconnect. In an age of "open source" and transparency, many companies still seem resistant to providing any information about their structure and what they do, preferring to maintain the mystique of a "black box" in which its products--whether physical or cultural--are "produced." Problem is, people are looking for that information regardless, and unofficial sources crop up where people can find that information.

In the absence of any authoritative voice, people--including researchers--have to go where the information is available, even if that information is sketchy.

The irony? Later, I happened upon comments in which a primary writer for one of the properties this company owns openly admitted to using Wikipedia as a central research tool for the history of the narrative universe she/he oversaw. Guess Wikipedia isn't an appropriate source for academic research but it is an appropriate stand-in for a story bible...

For related phenomena, see these previous posts:

GSD&M's Andy Hunter and Information Visualization

Why Do People Go To Search Engines Instead of the Official Site?

Thoughts? E-mail me at samford@mit.edu.