Is it all about reliability?

15 August, 2012 at 14:24 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Whom shall I trust? A typical newsstand in New York City.

Whom shall I trust? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are some thoughts I had after reading Heather Ford’s thought provoking and most interesting research “Beyond reliability: An ethnographic study of Wikipedia sources“.

Walking in Tel Aviv, I saw an interesting magazine and decided to buy a copy. The price was printed on the magazine’s cover – EUR 2, but actually I had to pay ILS 20 at the cashier. Apparently, this magazine is not reliable at all, because it lies about its own price… It says it is available for euro, and yet I paid in shekel. I suppose we can live with that, because there is a worldwide accepted conversion rate between the euro and the shekel. Then again, according to this conversion rate, EUR 2 = ILS 10 (approximately).

On the face of it, I am the victim of a series of lies, and I should be careful not to trust this magazine too much (especially its business and economy sections). Or, perhaps it is this bookstore that I have to distrust, or perhaps the bank that provided the list of exchange rates. In fact, nothing dramatic happened here, and I don’t even have to explain why this story is so trivial and why there were no lies here.

And yet, when writing about sensitive issues on Wikipedia, I often felt like someone who tried to convince other people that he bought the New York Times in Tel Aviv for shekels. All the sources say it is a US magazine whose price is quoted in US dollars, and your own testimony is a primary source at best, and an unreliable testimony at worse.

When the issue is not sensitive, people are naturally more willing to accept unwritten testimonies or “common sense” inferences. For example, other editors were willing to accept my testimony that the Jordanian Television was easily received in Israel (hence, for example, color sets could be popular in Israel before the local stations broadcast in color, because these sets would show color films from Jordan). When someone suggested that the same was true for Norway and Iceland (Icelanders could receive color transmission from Norway before their local stations switched to color broadcasting), another editor said it was illogical, because the distance between Norway and Iceland was too large. It was a dialog of direct testimonies and pure logic. No sources were involved.

Things are different when it comes to sensitive political issues, and you are welcome to browse this blog for some examples (forgive me for feeling a bit tired of repeating them, just like that hypothetical example about the magazine’s price.

So actually, it’s only reliability that is at the focus here. We are not concerened only about the accuracy of the information and how trustworthy it is. It is also a question of whether we want to have the information at all, how we plan to put it into use and how we want it to be “wrapped”. We often argue about the wrapping paper of the “present” (namely, the information), rather than the accuracy of the information itself. Sometimes, this “wrapping paper” is indeed more¬†important than the content.

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