Sometime in the next couple of days, the one-millionth article will be added to the English-language version of Wikipedia. It’s an impressive achievement for a project that’s only five years old , and it’s already clear that Wikipedia has surpassed its main competitors, Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft’s Encarta in many important respects. Neither Britannica’s 200-year history and expert staff nor the Microsoft juggernaut have proved a match for Wikipedia’s ten thousand or so regular contributors, and thousands of occasional helpers. While many criticisms of Wikipedia have been made (as with most things, the most comprehensive source for such criticisms is Wikipedia, none has really dented either Wikipedia’s credibility or its growth.
Still, as Bismarck is supposed to have said
If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.”The process by which Wikipedia entries are produced is, in many cases, far from edifying: the marvel, as with democracies and markets, is that the outcomes are as good as they are.
I’ve been active on Wikipedia for several months now, and had some interesting experiences.
- A visit to the recent changes page shows that there are between 50 and 100 changes each minute, or something like 100 000 changes per day. A fair number are cancelled out by subsequent reverts (either in response to vandalism or in the course of an edit war). A lot of others are very minor improvements, particularly in areas like cross-linking and categorisation. Still every little helps and the cumulative impact of all those changes in quite impressive. Although the quality of individual Wikipedia entries is highly variable, the structure as a whole is more powerful and robust than that of the competition.
- If you think the blogosphere is riddled with factions, flames and fury, wait until you get involved in editing a controversial page in Wikipedia (this includes anything to do with sex, politics or religion of course, but there have been bitter controversies about quite trivial issues like capitalisation/capitalization and spelling). At least with blogs, all your critics can do is flame you in the comments section or on their own blogs. In Wikipedia, they can wipe out your brilliant work altogether or edit it into a travesty of your original intention.
- Entries for living people (and for musical groups, companies, blogs and so on) are particularly problematic, and have become more so after the Siegenthaler affair. Given the problems that can be caused by errors or deliberate falsehoods in biographical entries, the guardians of Wikipedian orthodoxy have become increasingly pernickety both about citation of evidence for claims and about the requirements for inclusion of such entries in the first place. It’s quite amusing to watch a lengthy debate over whether someone is or isn’t notable enough for inclusion in Wikipedia, especially since, as with most things Wikipedian, anyone, however uninformed they may be themselves, is entitled to offer an opinion, and feels free to do so.
- A lot of Wikipedians are particularly dismissive of blogs – ‘the ultimate vanity press’ is one of the kinder descriptions I’ve seen. Sean Bonner suggests that the anti-blog faction think blogs are just rumors about kittens and stuff. I blame Belle for this. More seriously, I suspect that there’s a clash between the collectivist ethos of Wikipedia, at least as regards the final product, and the more traditional authorial role of bloggers.
- Despite all the above Wikipedia is good and getting better. Not long after the Siegenthaler controversy, Nature did a comparison of Britannica and Wikipedia on a set of science topics, selected without looking at either. Wikipedia had marginally more errors, but covered some topics omitted by EB (I can’t find a source for this right now, but I remember reading it).