Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Is Neutral Knowledge Dead?

It's become one of those battles:
  • Mac vs PC
  • Dogs vs. Cats
And now ...
  • Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia Britannica
In the latter, we've all read comparisons of the accuracy between one and the other. This new study goes further and says something about how the Internet is changing what we mean by knowledge. The authors find:
Content analyses of the length, tonality, and topics of 3,985 sentences showed that Wikipedia entries were significantly longer, were more positively and negatively framed, and focused more on corporate social responsibilities and legal and ethical issues than the online entries of the traditional encyclopedia, which were predominantly neutral.
Let that sink in for a moment.

Not the entry length, but the affective orientation of the Wikipedia entries versus the traditional encyclopedia. Wiki entries were more positive or negative, Britannica entries more neutral. 

Does anyone see a parallel here with what we see in the news, in how cable networks with a partisan bent (Fox, MSNBC) are more successful than those that generally try to keep to the middle (CNN)? For news nerds, doesn't this parallel the recent, raging debate between, say, Bill Keller and Glenn Greenwald over the future of journalism? 

Doesn't this parallel our more partisan times? Is the Internet just plain evil? Or, perhaps, the Internet is just plain anti-neutral?

To me, this is more than just a silly play with words. What people know, their knowledge, is mixing with opinion to a degree not seen before. Some argue this is a good thing. Others disagree. My point is our very idea of knowledge may be shifting from fact-based to opinion-based, that we can't even complete an encyclopedia entry without lacing it with positive and negative info. 

The authors posit social media are creating a fundamental shift in how we frame knowledge, and that strike me as both true and inevitable and not necessarily a good thing. Certainly this fits what we know about how people really process information, such as that described by the theory of motivated reasoning, in which people typically believe what they want to believe, the evidence be damned.

(Oh, ironically, that link above is to a wikipedia entry).

Some of the info above won't surprise those of you who have followed Wikipedia entries and the battles that sometimes happen as people edit, edit again, and edit yet again in squabbles over which facts get included. As an aside, it's fun to look at, say, UGA's entry and look at who edits the pages and, if you're clever enough, track back the IP numbers to administrative folks. That's the nerd journalist in me, but it's a good example of how "facts" come and go in such entries.

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