24 April 2007

Wikipedia as the Rapid Response Encyclopedia, or a rose by any other name...

The NYT piece on Wikipedia's role in disseminating information on the Virginia Tech shootings emphasizes the rapidity of information gathering, sifting, and sharing but it also highlights how different it is than our traditional notions of the encyclopedia.

Wikipedia administrator Michael Snow points out that "Professional news is the place to get the facts on the ground — after all, that’s where Wikipedia contributors are getting their information, too,” said Michael Snow, a Wikipedia administrator. “Wikipedia distinguishes itself by the ability to bring all the facts, and useful background information, together in one place.”(NYT) Bravo to Wikipedia in bringing together those facts for the rest of the world to look to. Bravo to Wikipedia for illustrating how quickly our world can change.

But that's the issue I am grappling with: is that the role of an "encyclopedia". Don't misread me: I am not suggesting that the service played by Wikipedia in this instance, or the role it plays in the democratization and popularization of information is not important. It is and I applaud it. But I can't help but be reminded of my husband and I standing in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket and his asking me why non-meat products are always given meat names. Why do they try to name fake chicken nuggets chicken nuggets at all? Why not call things by their proper name? The same applies to wikipedia. An encyclopedia is not a rapid response instrument. It is also not a news source. Wikipedia plays a valuable role in the world of information and knowledge today but I always always cringe at its being called an encyclopedia.

Does it really matter, you might be saying? Are you quibbling over words here? Perhaps. But what is that? What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Is it the true nature of things that matters or just the gist that counts?

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