11 March 2008

If Wikipedia really wanted to be innovative, they would...

Have you seen this article about Wikipedia in the Economist? I have to say, it brought up a lot of questions for me about Wikipedia, about authority, about usability, about bureaucracy, about our understanding of knowledge.

The article also coincides with the announcement of Google's Knol and Citizendium, a wiki based encyclopedia written in a scholarly fashion by experts. Here is a fascinating manifesto about how Citizendium proposes to be better. In looking at this information, I can't help but feel like I need a few research days to read these policies and devise some activities with students to discuss tone, authority, and scope. But perhaps that will be a future post.

For now, let's talk about that Economist article. It's interesting how it brings us full circle in the early debates about Wikipedia and "real" encyclopedias. What has been so fascinating about watching Wikipedia, and the many arguments related to it, develop is that what has made Wikipedia so deliciously democratic and difficult for the academic community to swallow is exactly what has come back to haunt them. Everyone can contribute about anything. Let's look at the example from the article: Pokemon characters versus Polish solidarity fighters. Is there something so wrong, the article asks, in including all the Pokemon characters while there are so few, if any, articles on the Polish unionists?

I think this is asking the wrong question. Asking whether there is something "wrong" or "harmful" is asking us to impart a judgement call on the content of the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. That's not the point. Part of what has made Wikipedia so successful is not that everyone can edit it; it's that everyone is recognized as a possible contributor. We all have knowledge to contribute to the greater understanding, the greater good. Frankly, that's a beatiful, awe-inspiring thought. The real issue at hand, to my mind, is whether we need to keep track of something so inconsequential as Pokeman figures when we aren't validating the important work of Polish Unionists. The problem that I see is trying to know now what might be important later. Or that a 1000 people can discern what is valuable for a few million.

The question that the deletionists seem to be posing is how can we be serious if we treat everything seriosly? I think the real issue is not about the content but about the way in which we deal with content. I support having entries on as many topics as possible in large part because, and as any research librarian will tell you, you never know just what might be of interest to someone else! That is what made Melvil Dewey's system so remarkable: he knew there were things left to be discovered.

That is where Wikipedia can truly become something extraordinary. By not reigning in its content to what is "scholarly" or "acceptable", they can leave the door open for exploration and scholarship within the encyclopedia. It becomes the place where knowledge is created, not just recorded. THAT is exciting. THAT is innovative. THAT is experimental. THAT is the future of information.

As I've said previously, Wikipedia has developed by leaps and bounds in the last few years. And it will continue to do so. But there seem to be more constructive rather than reductive ways to deal with Wikipedia's struggle towards credibility. As I've said in an earlier post, incorporating citations from the Open Library into Wikipedia entries would be far more compelling than deleting entries because they don't yet have enough Google hits to be significant.

But that's just the Sheck's thoughts on it.

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