Saturday, May 07, 2005

WIKIPEDIA is becoming the latest hot Internet phenomenon, although the English version has been around since 2001. Like blogs, Wikipedia allows individuals to express their opinions and share their interests and expertise instantaneously, without having to fill out an application form, take a test, or ace an interview. Wikipedia, of course, is an online encyclopedia, not a journal written by one or even a few people; but this is no ordinary encyclopedia. Anyone can write an entry in Wikipedia; and anyone can edit an entry -- any entry. The result is that the potential for error is fairly high; but so is the possibility of quick correction.

Not everybody is thrilled with the Wikipedia concept, however. Traditional types who like their knowledge vetted by credentialed professionals and who don't like the idea that anyone can change anything in wikiland, are skeptical. Paul Boutin at Slate is one of this group. He thinks Wikipedia is just like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -- "huge, nerdy, and imprecise."

Like the Guide's lengthy entries on drinking, Wikipedia mirrors the interests of its writers rather than its readers. You'll find more on Slashdot than The New Yorker. The entry for Cory Doctorow is three times as long as the one for E.L. Doctorow. Film buffs have yet to post a page on Through a Glass Darkly; they're too busy tweaking the seven-part entry on Tron.

But excessive nerdiness isn't what's keeping Wikipedia from becoming the Net's killer resource. Accuracy is. In a Wired feature story, Daniel Pink (kind of) praised the hulking encyclopedia by saying you can "[l]ook up any topic you know something about and you'll probably find that the Wikipedia entry is, if not perfect, not bad." But don't people use encyclopedias to look up stuff they don't know anything about? Even if a reference tool is 98 percent right, it's not useful if you don't know which 2 percent is wrong. The entry for Slate, for instance, claims that several freelance writers are "columnists on staff" and still lists Cyrus Krohn as publisher months after the Washington Post Co.'s Cliff Sloan took over.

Just because the Wikipedia elves will probably fix those errors by the time you read this article doesn't mean that the system is inherently self-healing. Not everyone who uses a wiki wants to hit from both sides of the plate. The subset of enthusiastic writers and editors is orders of magnitude smaller than the group of passive readers who'll never get around to contributing anything.

Bashing Wikipedia is nearly as risky as bashing Scientology. I know that I'm going to get barraged by the Wikivangelists—"If an entry's wrong," they'll say, "stop complaining about it and fix it." But if I were truly conscientious, I'd have to stop and edit something almost every time I use Wikipedia. Most people are like Douglas Adams' characters—we resolve firmly to stay and fix it after work then forget the whole episode by lunchtime. Wikipedia is a good first stop to get the basics in a hurry, especially for tech and pop culture topics that probably won't ever make it into Britannica. I'm just careful not to use it to settle bar bets or as source material for an article. I made that mistake exactly once.
You can count Invisible Library's Keith as one of the wikivangelists.

I've just recently finished a comprehensive case study of Wikipedia and while it's not perfect and does have some holes, I can't really get behind a criticism made by an author who doesn't even know how big Wikipedia really is. Boutin says, "Wikipedia, with more than 1 million entries in at least 10 languages, is the mother of all wikis..." That sounds sort of impressive. However, Wikipedia actually contains 1.5 million articles (over 540,000 in English) and is available in 195 languages, 92 of which are actively edited. I know these well guarded secrets because I spent two minutes looking for them.
There are over 6000 active Wikipedians, all over the world. They are computer programmers, yes. Nerds, of course. But they are also librarians, painters, writers, and teachers. And while 6000 is small compared to the the population of the Internet, they far outnumber the dozen or so specialists who compile the Encyclopedia Britanica. But these are professional nerds, rather than merely enthusiastic amateurs, so we must respect their slow, and highly specialized knowledge base, which does not begin to take in the breadth or depth of human knowledge. Otherwise, we all might contribute to our own information gathering and learn how to do research ourselves. And where would that get us?

It's interesting, isn't it. Because it's open source, Wikipedia forces us to be critical readers -- a responsibility we are often tempted to shirk with traditional news sources, precisely because they have professional staffs who had to meet job requirements and whose work is supervised.

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