Posted by: lrrp | May 8, 2007

Wisdom of the masses

Wikipedia is perhaps the trigger – if not the centre of the knowledge revolution of our times. In a matter of six years, it has become one of the world’s largest and best known knowledge resources. The information it offers evolves at a pace that paper encyclopaedias can never match. A good example is how fast the results of the 2007 Cricket World Cup were being updated and dissected on the site. But here’s the most important aspect of it – Wikipedia isn’t a money-making exercise run by a vast team of experts. The world’s best-known free Internet encyclopaedia is funded by a non-profit organisation, and created, edited and maintained by an immense team of ordinary volunteers who don’t get paid anything.

Practically anyone with an Internet connection can contribute. If you spot a mistake or notice some missing information while reading an article, you can “edit” or “expand” it right then and there, type your changes and save them – you don’t even need to log in to the service. Within minutes, someone else could then be reading and editing your edit. The theory is based on the wisdom of crowds: if enough people work on an entry, biases, errors and omissions should gradually be ironed out. And with Wiki technology at its core, articles can easily be reverted or revised so that even the worst edit needn’t cause lasting damage.

Wikipedia is ‘utopian’ in a way that few creations of the modern world are. While some critics see it as unreliable, owing to it’s free-for-all editing policy that is not quite accurate. The site has its own strict guidelines, encouraging a neutral point of view in which all sides of any debate are represented fairly and equally and limiting the chances of it being used as a propaganda tool. The “no original research” rule makes an attempt to stave off oddball theories and unsupported opinion, while further regulations state that articles should only contain material that has been published by a reliable, verifiable source.

Up to a point, this works. Studies in the science journal Nature and The Journal of American History have reported that Wikipedia compares well with traditional encyclopaedias for the reliability and depth of its coverage.

The studies themselves were questioned by some sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In practice the ideals behind Wikipedia don’t always work. While around 2000 volunteer Administrators – thirteen of them editing Tamil articles and two of them editing Sinhala articles at the moment (with a 200-strong hard-core inner circle). These administrators patrol the articles, fix errors and battle transgressions. However, the sheer daily volume of edits and additions means anomalies slip through. Articles are regularly amended or vandalised by extremists and for propaganda purposes. Some of these vandals are tastefully humorous but most obviously aren’t.

Most notoriously, in November 2005, the retired journalist John Siegenthaler found his Wikipedia entry implicating him in the assassinations of John F and Robert Kennedy – the result of a stupid workplace prank.

What’s more, the Wiki approach doesn’t always make great copy. Many entries suffer from bad writing style, repeated information and a lack of authenticity and structure. While there are nearly 1.5 million articles on Wikipedia, compared with 4500 on Encarta and 65,000 in the 2007 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica – the subject matter and weighting reveal the preoccupations of the Wiki users. Socrates gets 4000 words, Michelangelo 3676, while Nintendo’s Mario boasts more than 7000.
But at the end of the day, no one can really complain about Wikipedia’s faults when they can help to fix them!


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