lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 5 08:04:15 MDT 2005
Wikipedia is a real-life Hitchhiker's Guide: huge, nerdy, and imprecise.
By Paul Boutin
It's too bad Douglas Adams wasn't able to see his vision brought to life. I
don't mean the so-so movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
I'm talking about Wikipedia, the Web's own don't-panic guide to everything.
The parallels between The Hitchhiker's Guide (as found in Adams' original
BBC radio series and novels) and Wikipedia are so striking, it's a wonder
that the author's rabid fans don't think he invented time travel. Since its
editor was perennially out to lunch, the Guide was amended "by any passing
stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices on an afternoon and
saw something worth doing." This anonymous group effort ends up outselling
Encyclopedia Galactica even though "it has many omissions and contains much
that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate."
Adams actually launched his own online guide before he died in 2001, but it
was, he wrote, "still a little like the fossil record in that it consists
almost entirely of gaps." Wikipedia is a colossal improvementit's just
like the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide, only nerdier. Wikipedia is the Web
fetishist's ideal data structure: It's free, it's open-source, and it
features a 4,000-word exegesis of Dune.
For decades, software-makers competed to build complex collaboration
systems. These high-end tools, like Lotus Notes, let companies specify who
can edit which documents and establish complex approval procedures for
changes. In 1995, software researcher Ward Cunningham destroyed the
hierarchies by designing a site, the WikiWikiWeb, that anyone could edit.
(Wiki-wiki means "quick quick" in Hawaiian. Cunningham saw it on a Honolulu
Wikipedia, with more than 1 million entries in at least 10 languages, is
the mother of all wikis, but there are also wikis devoted to quotations,
the city of Seattle, and Irish politics. (Check out this wiki of wikis,
which lists more than 1,000 sites.) Instead of enforcing rules, wikis trust
that groups can behave. Anyone can edit or reorganize their contents. If
you realize something's missing, incomplete, or incorrect, you can fix it
yourself without asking permission. "People told me that the experience
changed their lives," Cunningham said via e-mail.
Don't expect Wikipedia to change your life, though, unless you've secretly
longed to be an encyclopedia editor. Just because you give everyone read
and write permissions doesn't mean everyone will use them. Wiki lovers
argue that they are collaborative, self-correcting, living documents that
evolve to hold the sum of all the knowledge of their users. But, like
blogging, editing the Net's encyclopedia appeals to a small, enthusiastic
Like the Guide's lengthy entries on drinking, Wikipedia mirrors the
interests of its writers rather than its readers. You'll find more on
Slashdot than The New Yorker. The entry for Cory Doctorow is three times as
long as the one for E.L. Doctorow. Film buffs have yet to post a page on
Through a Glass Darkly; they're too busy tweaking the seven-part entry on Tron.
But excessive nerdiness isn't what's keeping Wikipedia from becoming the
Net's killer resource. Accuracy is. In a Wired feature story, Daniel Pink
(kind of) praised the hulking encyclopedia by saying you can "[l]ook up any
topic you know something about and you'll probably find that the Wikipedia
entry is, if not perfect, not bad." But don't people use encyclopedias to
look up stuff they don't know anything about? Even if a reference tool is
98 percent right, it's not useful if you don't know which 2 percent is
wrong. The entry for Slate, for instance, claims that several freelance
writers are "columnists on staff" and still lists Cyrus Krohn as publisher
months after the Washington Post Co.'s Cliff Sloan took over.
Just because the Wikipedia elves will probably fix those errors by the time
you read this article doesn't mean that the system is inherently
self-healing. Not everyone who uses a wiki wants to hit from both sides of
the plate. The subset of enthusiastic writers and editors is orders of
magnitude smaller than the group of passive readers who'll never get around
to contributing anything.
Bashing Wikipedia is nearly as risky as bashing Scientology. I know that
I'm going to get barraged by the Wikivangelists"If an entry's wrong,"
they'll say, "stop complaining about it and fix it." But if I were truly
conscientious, I'd have to stop and edit something almost every time I use
Wikipedia. Most people are like Douglas Adams' characterswe resolve firmly
to stay and fix it after work then forget the whole episode by lunchtime.
Wikipedia is a good first stop to get the basics in a hurry, especially for
tech and pop culture topics that probably won't ever make it into
Britannica. I'm just careful not to use it to settle bar bets or as source
material for an article. I made that mistake exactly once.
Wikis are a great way to collect group knowledge, but not every reference
book in the galaxy will turn into one. A couple of weeks ago, online
reports claimed that Microsoft's Encarta decided to wikify its paltry
42,000 entries. Encarta's Editorial Director Gary Alt told me that the
truth is prosaic. Readers will be able to submit suggested corrections or
improvements to existing entries, but Encarta is not looking for new
entries, and the editors will still decide what's worth including.
An elitist encyclopedia like Encarta will never be able to match the
breadth or speed of a user-edited reference library, but it's smart to coax
readers into helping stretch its inherent advantagereliability. Alt told
me he's hiring all of six people to review and research reader submissions.
Unlike the editor of The Hitchhiker's Guide, they'll probably be eating
lunch at their desks.
Related in SlateLast year, Clive Thompson asked if an online crowd could
write a novel. In January, Jack Shafer said that blogs need a little time
to catch up to the hype.
Paul Boutin is a Silicon Valley writer who spent 15 years as a software
engineer and manager.
LA Times, May 4, 2005
Wikipedia: See 'Information,' 'Amazing,' 'Anarchy'
By Crispin Sartwell, Crispin Sartwell teaches political philosophy at
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.
Encyclopedias whether paper (Britannica, for example) or software
(Encarta) are intended to be representations of the scope of human
knowledge at the moment of their publication. This idea, of course, has a
long history. But the most interesting thing about it may be its future, as
represented by the magnificent, nonprofit Wikipedia.
"Wiki" is the Hawaiian word for quick, and it refers to a website that can
be updated easily by anyone from any Web browser. The first wiki armature
was developed in 1995, and Wikipedia the brainchild of one Jimmy Wales
was founded in 2001. Under Wales' brilliant conception, anyone can go into
Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) and create a new article or edit an old one: It
is entirely accessible and entirely alterable.
This is anarchy, of course, and completely antithetical to the encyclopedic
tradition, which has emphasized a kind of solemn definitiveness and
authority. Britannica and Encarta, for instance, not only employ experts to
write their articles but subject everything they publish to a rigorous
review process. At Wikipedia, you (or any old maniac) can march right onto
the "nuclear fusion" page and add your thoughts.
But as Wikipedia says about itself, the point is not that it's hard to make
mistakes but that it's easy to correct them. Because thousands of people
ordinary, unpaid, outside participants monitor and edit Wikipedia, errors
and vandalism are often corrected in seconds. One feature of the site is a
list of recently updated pages, so that one can keep track of changes. One
can even revert to a previous version of an article if mistaken or
malevolent parties have messed it up.
The result is not perfect. In one brief instance, a character from "Star
Wars" was labeled Benedict XVI. But such is the exception, not the rule,
and usually quickly rectified. Overall, the encyclopedia gets ever larger
and ever more accurate. The English version has grown to more than half a
million entries, and in checking the "recent changes" section I once found
a dozen or more revisions every minute. The site also provides contexts in
which changes can be proposed and discussed among writers.
So is it to be trusted? Does it have the credibility of Britannica? Well, I
have monitored over a decent period a number of entries on matters about
which I know something and have found them almost invariably accurate. And
I have watched some of them grow, becoming ever more elaborate and interlinked.
In fact, open architecture is in some sense the only possible way to do
what an encyclopedia purports to do: represent the state of human knowledge
in real time. Such a project is by its nature so huge that it requires what
Wikipedia has: thousands of experts, editors, checkers and so on with
expertise in different fields working over a period of years. Also,
Wikipedia, unlike the World Book, for example, or even Encarta, is updated
continuously. When we use the term "public property," we usually mean state
property, but Wikipedia compromises the concept of ownership without
dispossessing anyone: It is truly public property.
What is perhaps most fascinating about Wikipedia is its demonstration in
practical anarchy. It is an ever-shifting, voluntary, collaborative
enterprise. If it is in the long run successful, it would show that people
can make amazing things together without being commanded, constrained,
taxed, bribed or punished.
There are people who want to deface or even destroy Wikipedia. The
right-wing blogger Ace of Spades out of mischief and because he heard
Wikipedia's operators were liberals recently called on its readers to
"punk" the site: to put up as much misinformation and nonsense as possible.
Other blogs gleefully expose errors, even if those defects persist only for
a few minutes.
If the vandals are successful, they'll more or less confirm the common
wisdom that people are too evil and miserable to be allowed to govern
But if Wikipedia grows into the greatest reference work ever made, it will
suggest that great things are possible when you merely let people go and
see what happens.
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