Spawn Of Wikipedia - InformationWeek
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7/14/2006
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Alice LaPlante
Alice LaPlante
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Spawn Of Wikipedia

So can commoners--as the British like to refer to those not of aristocratic birth--be trusted? That's the question that two of the founders of Wikipedia appear to have asked themselves recently. And they appear to have come up with radically different answers.

So can commoners--as the British like to refer to those not of aristocratic birth--be trusted? That's the question that two of the founders of Wikipedia appear to have asked themselves recently. And they appear to have come up with radically different answers.Jimmy (Jimbo) Wales last week announced a new wiki dedicated to election information. Called Campaigns Wikia, the site--like Wikipedia--invites any and all to participate in an egalitarian online community. In this case, the wiki is intended to foster grass-roots discussion of all things political.

On the other hand, Larry Sanger in late May unveiled the beta version of Digital Universe, which is, in effect, a portfolio of portals leading to expert-approved content--including specialized encyclopedias--and has resolutely turned his back on the wide-open philosophy of Wikipedia.

Indeed, Sanger made his opinion of the weaknesses of Wikipedia known more than a year ago in a widely disseminated article titled "Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism." In it, Sanger pointed to two serious problems plaguing his former pet project: the public perception of Wikipedia as a flawed reference guide, as well as the presence of "difficult people, trolls, and their enablers."

Wikipedia is, of course, either glorious or notorious--depending on your perspective--as the Web encyclopedia that's editorially open to anyone with an Internet connection. That includes experts possessing relevant facts about a topic, but also unqualified contributors who post erroneous information, or worse, are attempting to advance an agenda.

Events that have called the accuracy and trustworthiness of Wikipedia into question include a hoax entry saying that John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist and former aide to Robert Kennedy, had a role in the assassinations of Robert and John Kennedy; and anonymous deletions of references to the accomplishments of pioneers in the podcasting arena by fellow podcasting innovator Adam Curry (after being outed, Curry apologized profusely).

There are even a number of watchdog Web sites--most notably, Wikitruth and Wikipedia Review--that are dedicated to scrutinizing Wikipedia and reporting on its flaws.

To be fair, Wikipedia has tightened rules for postings on controversial topics. And it has established an Arbitration Committee that has the power to oust the more dubious members of the community.

But this didn't prevent this month's enormous brouhaha over an...evolving...Wikipedia entry about Ken Lay's death. Among other things, Wikipedia contributors first reported Lay's death as a suicide, then began wildly hypothesizing about the cause of death. The mainstream press gleefully picked this up, pointing to it as an example of the central flaw of the Wikipedia concept.

So what's the right approach? The populist or the elitist? Granted, a political forum is quite different from a knowledge-based portal. The former is actually soliciting passionate differing opinions, while the latter seeks to establish authority and credibility (albeit while still maintaining a collaborative culture).

Still, the different paths that the Wikipedia founders have taken provide a fascinating snapshot of divergent philosophies of Web 2.0.

Those in favor of the Wikipedia approach say that, despite unavoidable glitches in the process, the community ultimately rights all wrongs. Supporting their argument, there was a study by Nature last December that found that for every four errors in Wikipedia, there were three in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

But even ardent Wikipedia supporters admit that although it's good as a preliminary research tool, people seeking verified facts should probably get a second opinion on any given query when consulting a truly open forum.

That's where I stand. I find Wikipedia infinitely valuable for giving me basic background information and providing links to other sites. But trust it when composing an article? Not on your life. I want evidence of reputable gatekeepers. I'm therefore looking forward to the evolution of Digital Universe.

What do you think? How far can a truly populist approach to compiling information take us? What are the relative strengths and limitations of a more elitist approach? Let me know.

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