Saturday, April 16, 2005

Wikipedia

Okay, here's a post that has nothing to do with politics...my feelings on the greatness of Wikipedia.

What is it?

For anyone who hasn't, check out www.wikipedia.org for the Internet's most comprehensive open source encyclopedia. The "open source" part basically means that anyone can create or edit any article on any topic and that the history of all versions of the article and an index of who made what edits is easily available.

What's so good about it?

Well, they do a great job of arguing the plusses of their own model but the high points are basically that: it isn't bound to the usual size and time restrictions of a print encyclopedia; it doesn't have the usual regional, generational, or commercial biases; and it can provide better context for its articles because they link to each other.

What's wrong with it?

Critics justifiably point out that any jackass can surf in and knowingly or unknowlingly change an article that is accurate and correct to something else. Because there are no financial consequences from having incorrect information printed on this free Internet site there is no reason to trust it. It also lacks the academic support to be an acceptable research tool after, say, grade nine.

My Conclusions

It seems that the accuracy problem is one that corrects itself. Either because people take ownership of articles they write or that apply to their lives; or because the altruism of the project trumps the individual desire for mischief things seem to level out. Granted there are some isolated articles where controversy has obscured usefulness but these are definitely the exception and almost always where one would expect to find controversy (2000 US election results, for instance).

The issue of favouring democratic support over expertise is one where critics may have a point. In other words if a particular expert knows of a recent breakthrough in a scientific field and writes an article about it on wikipedia he may be over-ruled by the masses who genuinely believe that he's wrong and don't realise that he's just ahead of the crowd. All the same genuine experts seem to be willing to donate their time towards improving this project.

As well, this definitely should not be the only source for any sort of scholastic paper. I imagine that teachers at many levels will be dealing with new wiki-related plagiarism epidemics. I hope though that teachers at lower levels will be willing to accept wikipedia references anywhere they would be willing to accept ones from a traditional encyclopedia. In my mind, like any other encyclopedia this is best used as a quick reference used to introduce oneself to a topic or settle a bet.

This truly does seem like an embodiment of what the Internet is supposed to be. It is a collection of useful, highly concentrated content, that is easily accessible for free, and is controlled on a democractic, decentralised basis. I will be interested to see if this will fit the history of great Internet applications being purchased by giant companies and consequently ruined. Does anyone still buy the overpriced hard cover encylopediae? or even Encarta-esque CD versions?

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