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Seth Finkelstein in The Guardian:


There's a cliche that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The latest iteration of the "Wikia Search" project might be summed up as "when you have a Wikipedia, everything looks like an edit". Wikia Search is an effort to apply many of the ideas that underpin Wikipedia to the task of building a search engine; irreverently, ideas such as relying on large amounts of unpaid labour to attempt quality assurance and fight spam.

It's important to keep in mind the distinction between the startup company Wikia Inc, with $14m (」7m) of venture capital, and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation that runs Wikipedia. Wikia was created by several high-level people involved in Wikipedia to commercialise similar concepts. But there is no significant financial connection between the for-profit Wikia and the charity that is the Wikimedia Foundation. However, Wikia benefits enormously from a "halo effect" due to Wikipedia's prominence and name recognition.

The launch of Wikia Search in January was poorly received. In a recent update, many features have been added to allow users to alter the results returned by a search. Items can be rated, added, removed, edited and so on. As systems which aggregate user actions are the grand fetish of a certain kind of data-mining business, this release of Wikia Search was more warmly received. But the ability to manipulate results is not much in the way of innovation for searching.

By now it's a standard caution on Wikia Search that it's competing against an incumbent (Google) which is an overwhelming world leader, and very powerful second-tier rivals (Yahoo, Microsoft). With this in mind, it's worth remembering that many other initiatives hyped by Wikia have ended in failure. "OpenServing", a hosting service where site creators kept advertising revenues, has been abandoned. A political website, "Campaigns Wikia", now demonstrates apathy. An effort to develop a "Blogger's Code Of Conduct" died as soon as the corresponding story faded away (Accusations of sex and violence were bound to grab the headlines, Guardian April 2007).

The most successful Wikia sites, their digital sharecropping electronic plantations, tend to be like what can be found on Wikipedia, but with a higher emphasis on material from popular culture (eg, TV shows, movies, videogames).

The point here is to note how little success Wikia has had outside of its own niche and area of expertise, which is the near-cloning of Wikipedia for hits and (potential) profit. The operating model is extremely fragile and not readily applicable apart from very narrow confines. But search engines require very specialised skill, which commands a high price. So not only is Wikia competing with entrenched companies for users, it's also competing for talent.

One of the drivers of Wikipedia is that skill at writing passable encyclopedia articles is common, and not restricted to a tiny academic elite. And people can be induced to work for free with the thought that they are then like those academics. But that trick doesn't work for search engines, as expertise at writing a decent search engine is rare. The problems Wikipedia has, with incentives for people to slant its articles, pale in comparison to the financial rewards that can accrue to a site which has the top spot in a search on a lucrative term. Compare the amount of money devoted to search engine optimisation with the much smaller field of public relations with Wikipedia.

In general, we are poorly served by slogans such as the "wisdom of crowds", which often stand for nothing beyond finding a few popular selections by various types of polling. It may work well for entertainment sites, and business owners are enthused at how consumers can be led to volunteer to undertake part of the process of determining what to sell to a target market. But the idea that these simple systems can be applied to deep value-laden social problems, of politics, or even relevant search results, is like trying to use a hammer to turn screws on the basis that it works so well to hit nails.

This is a strong point. I remain agnostic about such efforts. But I am convinced that if Wikia were to build a decent search engine, it would have to close shop quite a lot before doing so. Seth does us all a great service by reminding us of the political economy of Wikia and its reliance on confusion and conflation to free-ride on the brilliant benevolence of Wikipedia.

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A book in progress by

Siva Vaidhyanathan

Siva Vaidhyanathan

This blog, the result of a collaboration between myself and the Institute for the Future of the Book, is dedicated to exploring the process of writing a critical interpretation of the actions and intentions behind the cultural behemoth that is Google, Inc. The book will answer three key questions: What does the world look like through the lens of Google?; How is Google's ubiquity affecting the production and dissemination of knowledge?; and how has the corporation altered the rules and practices that govern other companies, institutions, and states? [more]

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Topics

Like the Mind of God (22 posts)

All the World's Information (26 posts)

What If Big Ads Don't Work (10 posts)

Don't Be Evil (9 posts)

Is Google a Library? (43 posts)

Challenging Big Media (18 posts)

The Dossier (19 posts)

Global Google (3 posts)

Google Earth (3 posts)

A Public Utility? (19 posts)

About this Book (16 posts)

Other books by Siva:


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Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007)


The Anarchist in the Library (Basic Books, 2004)


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Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (New York University Press, 2001)

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