Wednesday, March 02, 2005

World of Wikipedia

Wired.com has a story about Wikipedia, the massive open-source internet encyclopedia. Wikipedia differs from a more traditional encyclopedia because there are very many contributors, and the updating is continuous:

Most encyclopedias start to fossilize the moment they're printed on a page. But add Wiki software and some helping hands and you get something self-repairing and almost alive........Look up any topic you know something about - from the Battle of Fredericksburg to Madame Bovary to Planck's law of black body radiation - and you'll probably find that the Wikipedia entry is, if not perfect, not bad.

In my science posting, I link to Wikipedia very often, because it's open, well written, and contains link collections that save me time. The currentness of the Wikipedia effort is less of a concern to me, as I rely on the information in the main link for the immediate background. I think the Wired article has caught this good-enough assesment very well.

A lot of the issues raised by throwing by the open authorial gates-- open source vs. open sewer, Leonard Nimoy versus Toni Morrison, etc.-- are very reminiscent of the perils of blogging and blog-reading. (I was just blog-burned last week by a life on Mars post. It got me because I knew just enough, about the scientists and science involved, to bite. Right place, right time, wrong answer.) Wikipedia tries, with good success, to maintain a low bullshit content, via principles of neutrality and good faith writing.

But the high traffic, information aggregation aspects of Wikpedia generate epiphenomena which individual blogs never see, including entry trolls and "point of view warriors." Tackling these latter types of vandalism has forced Wiki from pure open source into a heirarchical system of reviewers and sysadmins, which does make me wonder how well Wikipedia will bear up. Still, there's some reason for optimism in the dedicated people who are addicted to the project. The people of Wikipedia functionas a collective bastion, defending the value of the project against vandals. Maybe there's a lesson here: some virtual cities will have less litter than others, just because of the people who live there.

UPDATE: The Wikipedia homepage is here.

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