Friday, May 06, 2005

Pissing On Wikipedia from a Great Height

Is Wikipedia the real Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? Paul Boutin at Slate seems to think so:

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."

It's a humorous idea, I admit. It's also wildly inacurate. I've just recently finished a comprehensive case study of Wikipedia and while it's not perfect and does have some holes, I can't really get behind a criticism made by an author who doesn't even know how big Wikipedia really is. Boutin says, "Wikipedia, with more than 1 million entries in at least 10 languages, is the mother of all wikis..." That sounds sort of impressive. However, Wikipedia actually contains 1.5 million articles (over 540,000 in English) and is available in 195 languages, 92 of which are actively edited. I know these well guarded secrets because I spent two minutes looking for them. But Boutin's criticism doesn't end with just inaccurate facts that even hasty research could correct. He follows these up with gross generalizations of Wikipedia's collaborators:

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 demographic.

There are over 6000 active Wikipedians, all over the world. They are computer programmers, yes. Nerds, of course. But they are also librarians, painters, writers, and teachers. And while 6000 is small compared to the the population of the Internet, they far outnumber the dozen or so specialists who compile the Encyclopedia Britanica. But these are professional nerds, rather than merely enthusiastic amateurs, so we must respect their slow, and highly specialized knowledge base, which does not begin to take in the breadth or depth of human knowledge. Otherwise, we all might contribute to our own information gathering and learn how to do research ourselves. And where would that get us?

As Steve Eley said on a recent thread over at Making light: "If the Internet had cars and motorcycles a la Snow Crash, mine might have a bumper sticker which reads "IT TAKES EXACTLY AS LONG TO EDIT WIKIPEDIA AS IT DOES TO COMPLAIN ABOUT IT ELSEWHERE."

Or you could get paid by Microsoft to piss on it because it isn't up to your rigourously inaccurate standards. Your choice.

1 Comments:

Blogger Karen Funk Blocher said...

Heh. You say it'sbeen compared to the Guide as if that's a bad thing. Cory Doctorow, for one, had made the comparison somewhat admiringly.

I really enjoyed this entry, a year after you wrote it. A quick look at the linked Wikipedia page about Wikipedia shows explosive growth since yur quoted statistics:
*more than 4,600,000 articles, including more than 1,200,000 in the English-language version.
*229 language editions of Wikipedia, fourteen of which have more than 50,000 articles each. 132 "active" language editions (100+ articles each) as of April 2006.
*In December 2005, Wikipedia had about 27,000 users who made at least five edits that month; 17,000 of them to the English edition.

And, of course, it has all the same limitations,controversies, and criticisms.

6/25/2006 5:44 PM  

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