I recently read The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih. The story of Wikipedia is a microcosm for looking at at least three things:
- How the Internet and Web are changing almost everything, destroying old models but with inherent weaknesses of their own.
- How collaborative group efforts can be greater than the sum of their parts.
- The human desire to have all knowledge.
1. Wikipedia is a perfect symbol of the Internet. It exists in a virtual reality, with a mass of contributors who don’t know each other. It has almost totally undercut older encyclopedias like Britannica and World Book, but depends entirely on the goodwill of its contributors. It has no stable means of support, and at the end of the book (published this year) Wikipedia was moving its headquarters to San Francisco, expanding staff and becoming much more expensive to operate in a leap of faith.
2. Wikipedia’s model of using a large number of contributors isn’t new, although the lack of professional editing is. The Oxford English Dictionary was originally built the same way, using file cards in cubbyholes in the 1800s, a fascinating story told in The Professor and the Madman. Wikipedia’s strength is its self-correcting and self-regulating nature. Its weakness is that unless someone knowledgeable about a field contributes, the articles will be weak.
In 2005, Nature magazine famously did a comparison of Wikipedia and Britannica’s science articles and found their accuracy comparable. However, when I first saw Wikipedia a couple of years ago I looked up two things I knew something about: grantwriting, which is my field, and BKS Iyengar, who is my wife’s teacher. Both were weak – not inaccurate, but sorely lacking. I checked recently and the Iyengar articles are much improved, but grants articles are still marginal (I’ve resolved to fix them when I get some time). If these two quick checks are representative, there are probably many other weak areas (in fairness, Britannica Online doesn’t have seem to have articles on either topic.)
3. People have been trying to capture the world’s knowledge for millennia. The first modern encyclopedia was probably Diderot’s French Encyclopédie, although Lih’s book says the first major attempt may have been by Pliny the Elder in the first century. But since knowledge is incomplete and constantly expanding and changing, the print versions were outdated within years. Wikipedia corrects this, but at the expense of a central editor or editors.
The larger question is about knowledge itself, which is famously growing faster than anyone can keep up. It has also been destroyed or lost in massive amounts, like the burning of the great library of Alexandria, the book burning in China’s Quin dynasty, or the medieval witch burnings which eliminated knowledge of folk medicine. In Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, the Encyclopedists are trying to preserve human knowledge in advance of a total breakdown of civilization (apparently the books are going to be made into a movie next year). (Funny thing about old science fiction. Spaceships leap across the universe, but computers are still the size of houses and books are still published on paper.)
Obviously, things are changing very fast. Wikipedia could drive print encyclopedias out of business then fail itself. The wiki model is very democratic, but like many very open systems subject to error and manipulation. Stay tuned.