What Do You See?

Sometimes a blot is just a blot

September 23, 2009

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On what was apparently a slow news day, the front page of the July 29, 2009, New York Times featured YAWA—yet another Wikipedia article—a variation on the enduring theme of “Wikipedia is changing the world; how shocking” (or how wonderful, depending on the mood of the reporter).

This one highlighted an exploration of the ethics of posting the original Rorschach test images on the site. Since the 10 inkblot plates were originally published in 1921, they’ve just barely escaped the Mickey Mouse copyright extensions and are thus in the public domain, so there’s no question of infringement; however, the article describes concern that this jeopardizes a venerable and still-used test, raising the possibility that it could now somehow be gamed.

The letters to the editor a few days later downplayed the impact; one said that the test wasn’t really all that good anyway, and another that if people gave canned answers, a good clinician would pick up on that immediately. When I mentioned this to my partner, who’s got a passing familiarity with this area, I was told, flatly, that crazy people aren’t going to be searching Wikipedia looking for Rorschach study tips. Good point.

The part of the article that piqued my interest was this: “While the plates have appeared on other Web sites, it was not until they showed up on the popular Wikipedia site that psychologists became concerned.” It’s not the fact that they’re available, but the ease of that availability that got people up in arms.

Duh. As we all know, it’s all about access. My doctoral student, Elisabeth Jones, just gave me the phrase “greased information” to describe previously difficult-to-get-at but publicly available stuff (city directories, anyone?) that’s now there for the taking. It’s all well and good to have tax or voting records “available” when somebody had to drag themselves to the county courthouse; quite another when it’s a few taps and clicks away.

Which Wikipedia?

There’s a lovely convergence here. In many ways, Wikipedia itself has been, since its beginning, something of a Rorschach blot of its own. Do you see the end of civilization and quality information as we know it? Or do you see the democratization of knowledge and its production and distribution? Without attempting to resolve that now-tired chestnut, let me call your attention to recent research from the Augmented Social Cognition group at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. They’ve found that, as Wikipedia has closed in on 3 million articles, the rate of expansion in both articles and contributors, while still impressive, has slowed.

Moreover, two camps, the “inclusionists” and the “deletionists,” have arisen, fighting over how broad Wikipedia’s coverage should be. The research shows the deletionists are winning: Edits placed by occasional contributors are much more likely to be reversed than those by those in the inner circles-which has got to make people feel it’s all a bit futile unless you’re on the inside. (When, by the way, did Britannica infiltrate Wikipedia?) Like an inkblot, Wikipedia is what you make of it—not only in the metaphoric sense, but literally as well. Starting from a few basic first principles (Wikipedia’s “Five Pillars”), the work we know today, and the ways that work is built and maintained, came to be. If the PARC research is correct, maybe it’s a lot harder than it looks to make an encyclopedia using boldness and no firm rules.

As the final Times letter-writer put it, “To me, this looks like a tempest in a teapot. Either that or two dragons talking on the telephone.” Couldn’t put it any better myself . . . but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor in the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle. Send ideas to intlib[at]ischool.washington.edu.