The New Yorker has a very good article on Wikipedia this week. It acknowledges both the positive and negative aspects of the site. I have to agree that Wikipedia will ever supplant the usefulness of a peer-reviewed traditional publication, but it will serve as a useful foil.
Over breakfast in early May, I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. â€œWikipedia is to Britannica as â€˜American Idolâ€™ is to the Juilliard School,â€ he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. â€œWikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,â€ he suggested. â€œIt may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.â€ He is right to emphasize the fright factor over accuracy. As was the EncyclopÃ©die, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back.
One point the article makes clear is that Wikipedia is, if defined mainly by writing activity, a community where people discuss things. The talk and discussion pages get more use than the actual articles. And that’s part of what I really love about it. Wikipedia (like the Web in general) records and makes explicit all the tacit conversations that go into collective truthmaking.
Evidently the guy who started Wikipedia with Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger, is now working on a new project — a hybrid of Wikipedia-like opennness with editorial peer review. Depending on how that’s handled, it could be extremely powerful. And why couldn’t Wikipedia be the breeding ground of what eventually ends up there?
Anyway, the article also makes the point that Encyclopedias have always been challenges to hegemonies …
In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The EncyclopÃ©die muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universeâ€”and, for that muscling, briefly earned the bookâ€™s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the EncyclopÃ©die on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference â€œSee Eucharist.â€
It’ll be strange to look at something like Wikipedia one day and think of it as a dusty, traditional way of sharing knowledge. But for now, it’s fun to watch the fight.