Wikipedia Defers To Google

Confuses Writer

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UPDATE 4/9/08: Seems there was some confusion sparked by this piece, which is, at best, a muddled, meandering, word-labyrinth posing as an unconventional, smart-alecky essay on web journalism/blogging. That’s okay, any reader would find himself in good company lost amid my verbose effluvia. For crying out loud, I used a word like "bildungsroman" and made references not just to Roman mythology but also to an obscure Persian king 3,500 years dead. I take full responsibility for that and for trying to force readers to read between the lines to understand this piece wasn’t really about Wikipedia or Powerset.  I had an opportunity to illustrate a point rather than just come out and say it, and I took it, and if more than one person doesn’t get it then I failed at illustrating it effectively. C’est la vie. I’ll try to refrain from being too artistic with my points in the future. 

So, let’s make the point clear: Online journalists (and increasingly traditional journalists) and bloggers, such as the one described in a New York Times piece whose ambition leads them to insomnia and cardiac arrest, are under enormous pressure to not just be first with a story, but also to evaluate and analyze first, and to do both things more often. This trend makes it more difficult for writers to do their job effectively and responsibly. They have less time to fact check, more time speculate, and incentive to get that speculation out there, which only serves to cloud the truth, which is the ultimate goal of journalism. 

It’s also hard on the PR industry because suddenly there are all these new sources and writers to work with, and the Internet just increases the number of possible requests for comment that come in, and all of them can’t possibly be answered. They have to judge who is most important to answer. Luckily, Wikipedia thought I was one of those important people to answer and I was able to dig up the truth of the matter, which is presented before going on to what I thought would illustrate the point via what I thought was quite obviously a fun bit of "faction" (fact + fiction), the point being that the truth is often much different than what can be imagined (but you probably already knew that). Powerset’s Mark Johnson notes also that it is difficult for natural language search engines to separate the two. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s like asking a robot to understand sarcasm and the meaning within voice intonation. Sometimes a human can’t convey that right to another human, much less a machine.

So, below is yesterday’s essay. I’ve reformatted and put the important parts in bold, such as the quote from Brian Vibber, the thesis (which comes awkwardly toward the middle), and the subtle grammatical clues beginning with "just imagine if," which indicate in grammar that what follows is presented in the subjunctive mood, or as we might know it, idle speculation. The speculative part has been put in italics to separate it.

I even added open and close imagination tags.

Perhaps next time, I’ll publish with a disclaimer, an idea that, frankly, kind of saddens me.

Blame information overload. If you did a search on Wikipedia today, you might have been greeted with this message: "Wikipedia search is disabled for performance reasons. You can search via Google or Yahoo! in the meantime."

That got me all excited about the possibilities (cuz search is in my "beat") and immediately sent me into a fit of speculation via keyboard. I asked questions nobody answered; I took screenshots; I relayed a humorous egg-head anecdote, a sort of flash-literary bildungsroman about how I discovered it, and by the time I had finished, well, my question was answered, so let’s save some time and get it out of the way, in a more blogger fashion:

Wikipedia took down its search engine today for maintenance and let Google and Yahoo conduct searches for them instead. Wikipedia search sucked before. Now it might be better because searchers can choose between MediaWiki, Google, Yahoo, Windows Live, Wikiwix, and Exalead. You may have been able to do this before. I don’t remember because I tried to search there once or twice and said never again. This time, though, Wikipedia was pretty good at bringing back relevant results for my favorite imposter king, Smerdis, also known as Gaumata.


Wikimedia Foundation CTO Brian Vibber said, "Search was temporarily disabled as a load-reducing measure during the investigation of an unrelated problem (a change to log page lookups which used bad indexing, bogging down the database servers). It was reenabled a few hours later, once the unrelated problem had been fixed."

Hmmph. A lot can change over lunch.

A few things remain true, though. Powerset and Wikia Search are still out there somewhere under wraps and ambitious rhetoric, and Wales & Co., after all that jazz about Wikia Search, made Wikipedia search better by deferring to the experts.  Props for making it better, though. I love Wikipedia.

But it also kind of illustrates the problems with this century’s great media transformation as writers and bloggers are expected more and more to sacrifice thoroughness for speed. (Which seems more important now that we know bloggers are killing themselves trying to be first :-) )

Too bad, though. Just imagine all the speculative buzz that could have been generated if I had published this:


 I stumbled across it by typical stream-of-web-consciousness accident, in case you really think I have time to test every prominent site’s search functionality. Previously, during my morning research routine, a story out of India about a baby born with two faces had caught my attention. A colleague joked:

"One could name the child Janeus I suppose."

I told my colleague that was likely very funny in a sad, dark humor kind of way, but I was too pathetically educated to get it. This must be what talking to Dennis Miller is like.

He sent me a link to Wikipedia, which, in his instant-messaging haste was absent a URL parameter. This led me to the Wikipedia search page (and later to the conclusion that, yes, naming it Janeus would be darkly, horrifyingly hilarious and awful—this is the same guy who introduced me to Goatse, after all). I tested it with another query, this time from my own library of obscure references, for King Smerdis, and sure enough got the same message.

I’m not going to pretend that it was a secret Wikipedia’s search engine was severely lacking. I learned a long time ago it was faster and more relevant to run a site-specific search on Google. So it made perfect sense that they would upgrade it eventually (and hopefully).


But I also remember those grandiose predictions made by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales about how his search project Wikia Search would bust Google’s block. The mind goes wild with possibilities:


 1. Wikia Search is about to launch after just one year in development and they’re going to show it off by integrating it into one of the biggest sites on the Web. Smart move!

 2. But they defaulted to Google (and Yahoo, we presume to avoid the appearance of favoritism—it’s okay, we get it) during the interim, which could mean all that bloviating came to naught along with an admission that search ain’t as easy as one might think it is.

3. Powerset also has talked a big game about the future of search and the company’s semantic approach, even if launch seems repeatedly delayed. We were supposed to hear from them in March, which came and went without much Powerset fanfare. Back in September, when Powerset was still teasing everybody, the Powerset blog mentions Wikipedia for explanatory purposes, but rumors circulating in January also spoke of a grand collaboration between the two.

 Wow. All that from a two-faced baby.

Which is it? Well, Wikimedia nor Powerset got back with me in time for publication, so we’ll go on wondering for a while.




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  • JoeKickass

    If & when Wikipedia becomes the showcase for Wikia, I wonder what the response will be from the fanatics who insist on claiming the two organisations are unconnected. Should Wikia be making money on the back of volunteer’s efforts?


  • Jason Lee Miller

    anything could masquerade as a blog post these days, even an unconventional essay on the nature of online journalism

    the point was somewhere toward the middle, when I talked about reality versus speculation and the speed with which online journalists are expected to post instead of being thorough

    Congratulations. You get the blue ribbon for being the first to miss the point

    In all fairness, as the communicator, it’s partly my job to make sure you get the point, but I didn’t want to insult anybody by overstating it.

  • Jason Lee Miller

    As per my email reply:

    Mark, the “grand collaboration” was in the second half of that article, which was intended to be humorous and a bit over the top with speculation. I was actually trying to make a point about online journalism, not so much about Wikipedia or Powerset…and I’ll have to take a look at it again to make sure that’s clearer. Someone else missed the point, too, and if there’s more than one to do so, then maybe something should be clearer. If you look at it, the article is presented in an unconventional way, so I can see it may be confusing to some. I brought out the truth in the beginning of that, what the reality was, followed it up with a suggestion that bloggers and online journalists don’t have time to be thorough, and then finished the joke (my apparently bad punchline) with an example of the speculation that comes without doing the legwork, which I had done by getting the quote from Vibber to explain what was going on. Sorry it wasn’t clear to some. Just keeping things interesting.

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