Virtuous cycle

Bartlomiej Owczarek weblog

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Wikipedia has its place

Wikipedia received a great deal of criticism lately. The poster child of the new Internet became a favorite target for anyone having an issue with the noise generated by web2.0 prophets. Nicholas Carr fired a resounding salvo in October with his ?Amorality of Web2.0? article.

Using Wikipedia as a representative of the emerging ?cult of the amateur?, he examined some sample deliverables of this new mode of production. Compared with work of the professionals, in this particular case Encyclopedia Britannica, the results were rather unimpressive, to say the least. Clearly, the exhibits made it hard to imagine that any respectable researcher would use Wikipedia as an authoritative reference.

At that point I felt an urge to write a longer comment to this topic. It seemed ridiculous to me to even consider Wikipedia as an authoritative reference and compare it with professional work. Regardless of whatever the Wikipedians might be saying, I felt that no one serious would expect authority from Wikipedia. That said, lack of authority doesn?t negate in any way how useful Wikipedia can be.

In fact, I use Wikipedia almost everyday. It?s my ?top of mind? source of information as far as exploring new topics is concerned. Wikipedia makes a perfect ?quick backgrounder? as Jane Perrone put it. But a reference source to base on?

The idea of quality that I personally like is the one focused on measuring extent to which the given product fulfills particular needs. It?s not an objective measure. As a result, Wikipedia might be argued to provide good quality if you put high weight on having a broad scope, high availability and a rich set of further references. You cannot depend on it as far as a constant level of accuracy is concerned, but if all you need is a quick overview and pointers to more respectable sources, you don?t care much.

Nicholas, however, made the point clear today without my help:

Wikipedia is not an authoritative encyclopedia, and it should stop trying to be one. It’s a free-for-all, a rumble-tumble forum where interested people can get together in never-ending, circular conversations and debates about what things mean. Maybe those discussions will resolve themselves into something like the truth. Maybe they won’t. Who cares?

Still, there is a second part of argument left from the ?Amorality?? piece. Even if it doesn?t happen every day, sometimes you need an authoritative source for a given topic. Currently it?s the one provided by the professionals. However, since amateur production can meet the daily ?quality? requirements of most of us, the professionals may not be able to survive competition with the free product that for most of the time is ?good enough?.

You can try to fix the financial model behind Britannica, which may look as increasingly serving professionals rather than the population in general. Or you can try to imagine an improved Wikipedia model that would be able to ensure accuracy and become an authoritative source. After all, why I trust Linux if I need to run mission-critical computing, but I cannot trust Wikipedia for mission-critical research?


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  1. December 29th, 2005 | 6:58 am

    This authority problem will worsen in the near future when micro-contents will be extracted from Wikipedia so that the author’s intention and even the author’s name will be lost in the process.
    Authority is a must in the academic world but after you know the facts in the quickest way (Wikipedia) it is not so hard to get the honored academic proof to your unprofessional claims.