Monday, April 11, 2005

Wikipedia Redux

Lat year, when Wikipedia was still a discovery to be made even for many in the technorati, I effused praise. Since that time I've had a chance to use it quite a bit more as well as to read both cogent and highly informed (such as from a past editor of Encyclopedia Brittanica) and more emotionally-derived opinion. My intent here (for now) isn't to debate Wikipedia's governance model or how it could be better--but rather, a year or so later, how I feel about it. Is the Open Source model working in this case? Certainly quite a few people seem to be skeptical--even on such profoundly Open Source venues as Slashdot. Perhaps the raw democracy of Wikipedia clashes with the inherit elitism of Open Source projects where some "expert" (even if self-appointed) is the ultimate arbiter of what gets included.

Well, I still feel pretty good about Wikipedia. Up to a point. And with some specific reservations.

In general, when I'm looking for facts--or at least a jumping off point to find and confirm facts--about topics historical, technical, and cultural. Wikipedia's a pretty darned good jumping-off point. It may not be the ultimate authority and it may or may not have the level of detail that I need, but it's a solid start. And if the text, as twisted and pulled by the efforts of too many non-professional editors, isn't the crispest or the smoothest, that doesn't devalue the information too much. Encyclopediae never were Nabokov.

That said, Wikipedia users would benefit by understanding its limitations--just as they would by understanding the limitations of National Review, The Nation, supposedly authoritative scholarly books, or even the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

For example, it's been said that news is the first draft of history. News is inherently non-authorative. While the bombs are dropping, it's unrealistic to expect the writer to understand or know all the precedents, background, particulars, and consequences. The better journalists get most of the facts right and understand the context better than most, but their accounts are still inevitably incomplete.

Yet, Wikipedia effectively tries (through its community) to integrate news as it happens--and doesn't do a great job of it--for all the reasons that those journalists who write history do it years later.

Wilipedia also struggles with controversy. It's got various mechanisms that attempt to deal with the push and pull of radically different opinions. But, for any controversial subject, the ultimate result is (at best): "here are some of the arguments; make up your own mind." Perhaps the best answer in some situations where expert opinion is legitimately divided; much less so when a small but vocal minority strongly contests the majority view. These issues are particularly pronounced in the dark corners. The biographies of George W.Bush and Jon Kerry will at least be viewed and debated by partisans from both sides. More obscure religious, ethical, and scientific debates may n ot be.

In spite of these limitations, I find Wikipedia an increasingly valuable resource. But you'll use it best if you understand its limitations.

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