Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wikipedia vs. Digg: The Internet at its Best, and at its Worst

The dreams of doe-eyed idealists live on in the Internet. "Information wants to be free!" Universal, free access to limitless information; absolute powers of self-publishing; and virtual intellectual anarchy. The Internet is a parallel world to the real one, and the only rules it abides by are the ones people have chosen to follow. It is a self-governing paradise.

One of those dreams is the image of millions of anonymous surfers acting as the ultimate information sieve of which information and news is most relevant, important, and true. Throw enough people at a problem and the solution will rise to the surface.

That power is enticing, but it is tempered by one phenomenon: the more democratic information becomes, it seems, the less it becomes. Like magnetic iron shavings, Internet users bond together into clumps, and where there are clumps, there is control, there is preference, and there is domination.

Two of the Internet's most popular sources of information are Wikipedia and Digg. Both derive their importance from the analogy of the sieve. In Wikipedia, anonymous contributors edit articles ad-infinitum, and the more an article is edited by more people, the more true it becomes. Digg is somewhat different in that it does not apply the ocean of Internet users to the task of content creation, but rather merely content evaluation. Articles are voted up or down (there are no criteria for choosing one or the other; it is merely preference); and moreover, comments to those articles are themselves voted up or down.

These two models of user participation both make claims to the effect that the democratization of publishing will produce an end result that is more helpful and beneficial to public discourse than their mainstream media counterparts.

Wikipedia, I believe, succeeds brilliantly. The anarchic encyclopedia often comes out neck-and-neck in terms of accuracy with the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta, though it is often lacking in good structure. Whatever its failings, Wikipedia is far and away more useful and accurate than anybody could have predicted of a reference governed only by an honor system.

Even on matters concerning religion, which the dominant 20-30 something crowd of Internet users commonly loathe, Wikipedia offers solid information.

Digg, in spite of having similar principles driving it, is a wasteland of critical thought. Digg voters and commentators appear to be dominated by a vast sea of--not just non-believers--but angry, prejudiced, intolerant, and utterly dogmatic non-believers. It is not only the religion articles that unveil that striking character, but any article invoking popular emotion unleashes the mob mentality. That mob feeds on itself by "digging" comments it agrees with and "burying" comments it does not agree with.

What's the difference?

I believe there are a few:

  • What kind of user-contribution is invited?
  • What is understood to be of greatest value?
  • What happens to truth in these models?
Digg and Wikipedia ask for distinctly different contributions. Digg asks for a click. Wikipedia asks for expertise and explanation. An opinionated troglodyte can edit a Wikipedia article; however, such an edit will not likely stand the test of time. Even if the troglodytes outnumber the scholars, the scholars will win out in the end because the value of their contribution to the article will be more widely recognized.

Digg offers no serious means for scholars to win influence away from troglodytes. On the contrary, because contributing to Digg has no complexity or distinctive content (no "click" is more persuasive than any other "click"), the scholar's positions will only be "dugg" if their conclusions match those of the majority; otherwise they will be "buried." Majority opinion is self-reinforcing on Digg.

Digg and Wikipedia have distinctly different values. That is evidence in their very titles. Wikipedia is the "Free Encyclopedia". Users and contributers have a collective understanding that accuracy and truth are its sole reason for existing. Even those with idiosyncratic agendas understand this. Relatively few people edit Wikipedia articles with the same interests in mind that govern Digg. Whether I "like" something is irrelevant. Only the truth matters.

Digg, then, is all about preference--not about accuracy. A true comment will be "buried", not because "Diggers" found it to be untrue or inaccurate, but because they might have found it disagreeable or unimportant.

Another factor to consider is that the people who make earnest contributions to Wikipedia articles more often than not are specialists of some kind or another. They care about the topic at hand. Two scholars on Wikipedia can hold off a dozen article-defacing troglodytes, because they can continually remove the influence of superficiality, and their efforts will be reinforced by supporters.

On Digg, a comment can only receive one vote from each person. Thus, a scholar cannot continually "digg" their own comment; to defend ideological terroritory, the scholar would have to recruit substantial numbers in order to "digg" that comment up into relevancy. Without the numbers, comments get buried irrespective of their actual value.

So what happens to the truth in these models? In Wikipedia I believe truth actually does rise to the surface. In Digg, truth takes a backseat to the caprice of the mob, to enjoyment, to collective outrage, in a word, to groupthink.

Monday, July 19, 2010

My fascination with abandoned buildings

Few things in the world fill me with more wonder and excitement than an abandoned building. I am not particular as to what kind of building it had been--though churches, schools, and hospitals seem more likely to bear a resemblance to their once living purposes.

I am not certain why these things capture my imagination. It's a sensation that actually leaves me at a loss for words. Most of my attempts at an explanation feel flat. So here is another go at it.

I believe my fascination is the result of the overlapping of several features that pull on my heartstrings.

First is the feeling of having found hidden treasure. Most abandoned facilities have been picked clean of anything of actual monetary value. Yet they often contain items whose financial worthlessness does no justice to their uniqueness, scarcity, and storied past. These might take the shape of a piano decayed beyond repair, or Victorian architecture, or works of art (like simple murals inside childrens' quarters). The only reason these objects haven't left their home is that individuals could hardly put them to use elsewhere--they would wind up being stored and forgotten (which is hardly better than being abandoned and forgotten). What they lack in utility, they make up for in curiosity. A piano may never be played again, yet by its very presence and accessibility it continues to be a source of enjoyment--"Hey, here's a piano! Somebody once must have considered this to be a valuable thing."

Even buildings without such trifles contain something of the same character. Indoor space is not something that is constructed, or abandoned, lightly. Somehow, present value becomes an echo of past value. Why are these buildings no longer used? Why do they occupy a no-man's land between use, demolition, or embalming? Very often in modern cases the reason is mundane: asbestos. Considerations of efficiency, safety, and risk-benefit dictate that allowing buildings to rot is the least bad path.

Unfortunately this means that some of that feeling--of having stumbled upon an (available) treasure--is illusory. Everything has an owner, even if it's rotting. The state protects garbage. There will be no fly-by-night restorations, no partial re-inhabitation of a long unloved shack, no "secret place" where one can spend leisure hours in privacy. Many, but not all abandoned sites are monitored by security.

But such reminders can't quench my suspension of disbelief. Abandoned buildings will always hold the allure of offering a "secret place".

A second reason such places captivate me is the ghosts. I am not referring to the remnant souls of the dead--I am a skeptic (though paradoxically I do take paranormal phenomena seriously). When I speak of ghosts, let me be clear that I do only refer to my own projections and imaginations. Yet time is relative rather than absolute. We are not so removed from the past as the length of years would have us believe. There is a sense--whether objective or subjective, I care not--of the lingering presence of the past in the present. An abandoned psychiatric ward will always feel more ominous than a disused auto repair garage. Buildings with innocuous histories will inherit a "spooky" character from my imagination. And buildings that harbored secret crimes will not tell those secrets now.

The allure of abandoned constructs is in their stories--real, or imagined, known or projected. In those stories is an invitation to feel connected to an "other," a desire that is the flip side of enjoying the privacy of perceived solitude. There is a community that is experienced when people occupy the same place at the same time. But there is also a community that is experienced by the historian, who acquaints him or herself with people in the same place at different times. The strength of that "community," I feel, is related to the presence of artifacts--which explains in part why I find recent wrecks to hold more allure than ancient ruins.

Though to be fair, the ancient ruins are less likely to cause asbestos poisoning.

The third and last reason I feel compelled to explore our discarded places is that it recaptures a lost sense of the frontier. Over the course of months I begin to feel as though I spend my days in an endless sitcom rerun. The nooks and crannies have been exposed to the white hot light of prosaic familiarity. Everything is properly regulated and controlled.

If this sounds nightmarish, then I am being unfair. I like routine. I would be happy to surrender six days a week to it. When "interesting" events meddle in my comfort zones, I feel intruded upon.

But, dear God, remind me please that this is not all there is! Show me secret gardens, impassable stretches, unattainable heights, and dark caverns! Abandoned buildings are a part of that mystery. The once-familiar is now unfamiliar and strange; a place where the nocturnal creatures of our childhood imaginations find sanctuary from the common, and thus from becoming exploited and common themselves. In abandoned buildings the domestic has returned to the wild, the controlled to the uncontrolled, and thus, the impossible to the possible. The small world of routine becomes large again, and that one day of the week stretches out to overtake the other six in its mysteries and unknowns.

In explaining myself here I think I begin to uncover something basic to human nature, which is its longing for the infinite. That is part of the reason I can't be other than religious, and why I regard worship as one of two most vital human activities (the other being caritas, mercy). The experience of the infinite and the mysterious inside natural phenomena--like abandoned buildings--reminds me with natural feelings of the what the supernatural infinite lays before me. But one need not be religious to be captivated by the haunted and uninhabited.