Slashdot published an interview today with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. I found it entertaining reading. Even though I’m a semi-regular contributor over at Wikipedia, I’ve never encountered its founder, possibly because I do my best these days to stay under the radar over there.The discussion on Slashdot was interesting. As always, someone questioned Wikipedia’s accuracy, wondering how anything but chaos can come from something that anyone can edit at any time. A few people read two articles and came back with the usual “99.9% of Wikipedia articles cite no sources and have inaccuracies in them.” Someone else came back and said he’d made a change to the M1A1 Abrams article and was corrected by an Army mechanic. I always like comments like that. It shows who actually has experience and who’s talking out his butt.
Wales was incredibly idealistic, with a vision of free textbooks educating the world and ridding the world of places where people have no sanitation. Free access to the sum of all human knowledge will solve all the world’s problems.
I wish I could be so idealistic.
Oh well, shoot for the stars and maybe you have a chance of hitting the moon, right?
I found the discussion on credibility more interesting. Someone asked how an encyclopedia produced by anarchy could have more credibility than the mighty Encyclopedia Britannica or even World Book. Linux Kernel hacker Alan Cox weighed in, pointing out that there’s plenty of bias in academia too, that academia is a tyranny of the day’s popular ideas and that generally ideas change by one generation dying out and a new generation with different ideas taking over. At least with Wikipedia, the divergent ideas get a chance to be heard. He had a point.
I disagree with Wales that his project will drive Britannica out of business, but I agree with Cox about credibility. I had an argument with a college professor over using the Internet as a primary source of information. This was in 1995 or 1996. I wrote a short paper on the Irish Republican Army, and I wanted to find out what people sympathetic to the IRA were saying. So I went to Alta Vista, did some searching, and cited what I found. I wanted to know what the people who made the bombs were thinking, and figured the people who made the bombs were more likely to have Web pages than they were to write books that would be in the University of Missouri library. But my professor wanted me to look for books. I decided he was a pompous, arrogant ass and maybe I didn’t want to minor in political science after all, especially if that meant I’d have to deal with him again.
I forgot what my point was. Oh yes. In journalism we have a sort of unwritten rule. You can cite as many sources as you want. In fact, the more sources the better. If a story doesn’t have three sources, it really ought not to be printed. That rule gets selectively enforced at times, but it’s there. Your sources can spout off all they want. That’s opinion. When three sources’ stories match independently, then it’s fact.
So what if Wikipedia is never the Britannica or even the World Book? It’s a source. It’s much more in touch with popular culture than either of those institutions ever will be. Most people will think you’re a bit odd if you sit down with a volume or two of the Britannica or World Book and read it like you would a novel. I know people who claim to have done it, but that doesn’t make the behavior unusual. Hitting random pages of Wikipedia can be entertaining reading, however. As long as you don’t get stuck in a rut of geography articles. But that’s become less and less likely.
So I don’t think it matters if the Wikipedia ever attains the status of the paper encyclopedias. You’ve got what the academics are saying. Wikipedia gives you the word on the street or in the coffee shop. Neither is necessarily a substitute for the other.
I’ve appealed to this before, but I’ll do it again. Visit Wikipedia. See what it has to say about your areas of interest. If it doesn’t say enough, take a few minutes to add to it. Resist the temptation to go to the articles on controversial people like Josef Stalin or Adolf Hitler. It’s a good way to get into an edit war and get frustrated. Find something obscure. I mostly write about old computers, old baseball players and old trains. Not too many Wikipedians are interested in those things. Especially the trains, so that’s what I write about most. (Other people seem to be; when I troll the ‘net for more information on those old companies, I frequently find copies of what I’ve already written and put in Wikipedia. It’s flattering.)
I look at it as a way of giving back. It’s relaxing to me. But there’s a community who’s written a ton of software, including an operating system, a web server, and a blogging system, and they’ve given it to me and never asked for a dime in return. I can’t program so I can’t give anything back in that way. But I have interests and I have knowledge in my head that doesn’t seem to be out there on the ‘net, and I have the ability to communicate it. So I give back that way.
It won’t change the world. Maybe all it’ll accomplish is me seeing fewer “Mar” trains on eBay and more Marx trains. But isn’t that something?