Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia created and diligently monitored by scores of regular users mass collaborating over the internet, has been a source of immense controversy since it first appeared online seven years ago.
While most of us (I think) regard the online encyclopedia as a very useful resource for initial research into an unfamiliar topic (not to mention one of the world’s greatest time killers), and see its method of creation (mass collaboration) as both novel and strikingly accurate, there has been no shortage of bluster from both sides of the aisle to just how best to describe/exalt/deride the online phenomenon.
The staunchest self-described ‘Wikipedians’ see their community as the first real democracy, a new egalitarian mode of production and a nation online.
Critics argue that Wikipedia is, quite literally, the death of knowledge. Wikipedia embodies a generation (mine) of lazy cheaters – using half-baked, ‘user-generated’ (re: inaccurate) articles written by computer-nerds and other weirdos that skew the truth and focus only on the trivial. Wikipedia is lowering our standards for accuracy and simultaneously lowering our collective IQ.
Describing Wikipedia as either a Virtual Utopia or The Death of Knowledge is reductionism at its finest. While I am generally skeptical of these far-flung metaphors that try to pin down the online encyclopedia, I was intrigued by one recent attempt by Noam Cohen in the New York Times. He says Wikipedia most closely resembles a vast, diverse, online fact city- and quite a creative one at that.
Cohen adapts a Socratic tone in asking a number of thought provoking questions. He says:
“Wikipedia encourages contributors to mimic the basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities familiar to any city dweller. Why don’t people attack each other on the way home? Why do they stay in line at the bank? Why don’t people guffaw at the person with blue hair?”
He could just as easily ask: why don’t people sabotage Wikipedia pages? Why don’t people post misinformation?
The reality, of course, is that they do. Just as sometimes in our real cities, people are attacked, lines are budded, and people with blue hair get ridiculed- occasionally. But the stronger the city and the sense of community, the stronger the social forces that combat devious behavior. The same is true for Wikipedia.
To support his claim, Cohen consults the writings of Urban Oracle Jane Jacobs. He quotes the prolific Wikipedian Andrew Lih (who paraphrases Jacobs) saying she “argued that sidewalks provided three important things: safety, contact, and the assimilation of children.” He continues, “She may as well have been talking about wikis. A wiki has all its activities happening in the open for inspection, as on Jacobs’s sidewalk. Trust is built by observing the actions of others in the community and discovering people with like or complementary interests.”
So is Wikipedia perfect? Or another question: will we (because it really is we) ever ‘finish’ Wikipedia? The same question could be posed for Chicago, Paris, or Toronto. Of course it isn’t perfect and it will probably never be finished – just as a city is constantly changing, evolving, and reinventing itself.
For the sake of all people who can access this vast, unprecedented body of knowledge, I hope Wikipedia grows – especially in the 100+ versions that exist now in other languages. Never before have we been given such a low barrier – the internet – to access this vast canon of human knowledge.
So forget the controversy, the metaphors, and the bluster and take a stroll down one of the long, wide information boulevards of the online city – you never know what side street you may end up on, or what secrets you might find.
On a lighter note: College Humor’s take on the Wiki-phenomenon.