It will never work

(Note: this is another thing I wrote awhile ago, I will post more of them just to get them out the door)

I was in a hospital once and noticed a sign encouraging doctors and nurses to use an “evidence-based approach” to care. It’s a bit scary to think they might be using dice to decide how to treat your broken leg, but hey, it’s a possibility.

One of the things that advocates of wikis get asked repeatedly is whether a wiki is trustworthy. Surely if anyone can edit then they will add nonsense, or get things wrong. It’s almost not worth debating the point if you take an evidence-based approach. Wikipedia works

Honest, people use it every day to look up all kinds of things.

You can be in an auditorium and get this question. Is it trustworthy someone asks, and a sea of faces look slightly panicked – maybe it really is turtles all the way down?

But you can easily flip it. You ask the audience how many people use wikipedia, say once a week? A cornfield of hands goes up. Then you ask how many use Encarta? You might get some people own up to that one, but it’s not like Encarta is a slouch – we’re talking about the people who broke Encyclopaedia Britannica and their business model. (Note: this was written when Encarta was alive).

Which is not to say wikis are 100% trustworthy. But they’re not even designed to be. Britannica never was 100% tustworthy (or is) and nor was Encarta. There are always mistakes. If you really want to know, with accuracy, how tall the Eiffel Tower is then go climb it. It’s a lot cheaper to stay at home and get the information for free from wikipedia though, with say 99.999% certainty or whatever the figure turns out to be.


This is what’s called ‘versioned information’. You have one version of the information, which has some ‘quality’ and zero ‘price’ from wikipedia. (I use price and quality in quotation as it’s a bit of a hand wavy argument. A guess is really zero price, but wikipedia requires a computer, internet, electricity, fingers… And of course ‘quality’ is a relative term here). Then you get other versions at other price/quality positions.

You have a higher price version sitting on a shelf at your local library or book store in a book – higher price as you have to go to the library or buy the book. That higher price might reflect the higher accuracy. In a market of information, there should be many choices on the price/accuracy graph and it’s up to you to choose which one you want.

To go though the example, a guess is free… you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower in pictures so you know it’s roughly a couple of hundred metres tall. Next ask your 10 friends when you see them for lunch and average their opinion. Next, go ask wikipedia. Next, for all we know the Britannica article was written by the guy that built it, but then you have to go find a library or buy a book. And very last you can fly to Paris which allows you to be as accurate as you want but it comes with a associated cost.

It turns out that lots of people choose wikipedia. The small increase in quality, if it exists, to go buy or read a paid-for encyclopaedia (or fly to Paris) generally does not appear to be worth the large increases in price. Nw imagine the Y axis on the above graph being the number of page views or attempts. There will be lots of guesses, a few people asking friends, a huge number viewing wikipedia and basically nobody relying on Britannica or actually surveying the tower.

This is what happens, more broadly, out in the real world. Information is versioned on quality, timeliness, availability, presentation and so on despite often being the same information. Stock quotes are more expensive if they’re live than 20 minutes old. Books are more expensive if they’re new (hardback) than old (paperback).

PS it’s 324 metres, or so says the notoriously inaccurate wikipedia (which anyone can edit!)