Deploying wikis

Terrific front-page story in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) titled In “Afghanistan, Getting to Know the Neighbors is Half the Battle” which describes the crucial role of combat troops in getting to know, and being able to work with, local leaders and tribal factions.  It begins:

After 15 months in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Chris Kolenda figures he knows hundreds of village elders and leaders. He knows their names, their faces, their tribes, subtribes and clans. In many cases, he knows who stole whose water, who killed whose father, and who hates whom.  A lengthy combat tour has left Lt. Col. Kolenda as much sociologist as soldier. That will make him a tough act to follow when he and his men, the First Squadron of the 91st Cavalry Regiment, pack their duffels and turn over their battlefield to another Army unit over the next week or so.

It goes on to discuss the importance and difficulty of attaining successful transition.  What prompted me to post about the story was mention of one of the tools the Army uses to help new troops and commanders get up to speed–Wiki-Afghan.  “It looks just like Wikipedia, except it’s all about Afghanistan and much of it is classified. There are upwards of 10,000 articles, and any authorized soldier can click on an entry and add new information.”  I’ve often bashed Wikipedia but do think that wikis can be great tools.  The returning troops have developed a wealth of knowledge that incoming troops can use to minimize repetition of mistakes and improve the chances of their mission’s success.  A wiki is perfect for capturing and refining that knowledge.

Wikis should be used in more academic projects.  They would fit well with the School of Management’s team-oriented curriculum.

Massaging the Record

It is not a surprise yet worth noting how people, companies, and institutions are using Wikipedia’s open-editing architecture to provide a more positive spin to stories about themselves. A program called WikiScanner allows one to track to location of computers from which Wikipedia articles were edited. Recent news stories and blog posts report that the CIA, the FBI, a number of major U.S. law firms, presidential candidates, and others have tinkered with Wikipedia articles in which they have an interest. Wikipedia’s response is that it’s “self-correcting” nature will catch and undue slanted articles. That sounds positively organic, as if Wikipedia is a living entity that rushes white blood cells to any place in which the truth is harmed. The truth is that Wikipedia articles will be corrected only if (a) someone notices an suspect alteration, and (b) that someone cares to make the change. He who dies in control of the last edit wins.


On September 12 The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Will Wikipedia Mean the End Of Traditional Encyclopedias?” It featured a back-and-forth conducted via email between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Encyclopedia Britannica editor-in-chief Dale Hoiberg. There are no surprises–Hoiberg and Wales defend their respective platforms, with Wales touting Wikipedia’s openness and breadth of contributing community and Hoiberg citing Britannica’s tradition of scholarship and editorial control. It actually becomes fairly testy by the end. One interchange did cause me to spit out my coffee:

Mr. Wales: Artificially excluding good people from the process is not the best way to gather accurate knowledge. Britannica has acknowledged the value of having multiple contributors, although of course because they are proprietary rather than freely licensed they would have a very hard time attracting the kind of talent that we have.

Mr. Hoiberg: I can only assume Mr. Wales is being ironic when he says Britannica would have a hard time attracting the kind of talent that Wikipedia has.

(Emphasis supplied) I’ve yet to be convinced by the Internet-utopian argument that more cooks make for a better meal. I’m not talking about open-source software. Conveying authoritative information is not the same as writing functional code. Wales’ article of faith is that more contributors = more qualified contributors = better quality content. The irony is that Wikipedia is moving towards less openness and more control. The days of “hey, gang, let’s write an encyclopedia” are over. Britannica, on the other hand, is no longer defined by its multi-volume bound encyclodpedia (Hoiberg notes that “we publish principally on the Internet”) and has moved towards greater responsiveness and timeliness.

This is one of those Internet litmus-test issues that determines whether you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid: Wikipedia or Britannica? Open-source all the time or editorial control? A “transparent” or proprietary model? “Transparency” is not always a virtue. Just ask the Emperor in the new clothes.