Posts Tagged ‘Wikipedia’

Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Tue Jun 30th 2009 at 8:01pm UTC

The Wikipedia Revolution

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I recently read The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih. The story of Wikipedia is a microcosm for looking at at least three things:

  1. How the Internet and Web are changing almost everything, destroying old models but with inherent weaknesses of their own.
  2. How collaborative group efforts can be greater than the sum of their parts.
  3. 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.

Alex Tapscott
by Alex Tapscott
Thu Apr 9th 2009 at 3:49pm UTC

Wikipedia: The Virtual City

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

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.