More on Wikipedia

In my post on the amorality of Web 2.0, I had some harsh things to say about Wikipedia. One of Wikipedia’s administrators, David Gerard, wrote a thoughtful response that I’m going to copy here in full:

Everything you’ve written here is a valid opinion, and commercial encyclopedias are doomed anyway because (as Microsoft is finding out with Linux) it’s hard to compete with free. (I eagerly await EB [Encyclopedia Britannica] putting out TCO studies on Wikipedia.)

Speaking as someone who’s highly involved in it (I write stuff, I’m an administrator, I’m on the Arbitration Committee, I’m a mailing list moderator, I do media interviews), Wikipedia is of mediocre quality with some really good bits. If you hit the “Random page” link twenty times, you’ll end up mostly with sketchy three-paragraph stub articles.

That said, the good bits are fantastic. Although articles good enough to make “Featured Article” status (which are indeed excellent) tend to be hideously esoteric; somehow getting more general articles up to that sort of quality is not facilitated at present.

Encyclopedia Britannica is an amazing work. It’s of consistent high quality, it’s one of the great books in the English language and it’s doomed. Brilliant but pricey has difficulty competing economically with free and apparently adequate (see – this story plays out over and over again in the computing field and is the essence of “disruptive technology”). They could release the entire EB under an open content license, but they have shareholders who might want a word about that.

So if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it’s going to have to be a good Wikipedia. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won’t be anything.

I’ve made some efforts in this direction – pushing toward a page-rating feature, a “Rate this page” tab at the top, which, unlike an editorial committee, will actually scale with the contributor base and will highlight areas in need of attention. (See and – the feature is currently waiting on an implementation the lead developer thinks won’t kill the database.) Recent discussion on the WikiEN-L mailing list has also included proposals for a scaleable article rating system.

Wikipedia is likely to be it by first-mover advantage and network effect. Think about what you can do to ensure there is a good encyclopedia in ten years.

I admire Mr. Gerard’s honesty, and as I feel we’re mainly in agreement, I’ll leave it there.

9 thoughts on “More on Wikipedia

  1. Anonymous

    Oh yes as “Microsoft is finding out with Linux”. Let us ask what the founder of Linux thinks of it

    “I don’t see the MS market going away very fast, and I don’t see why MS couldn’t continue to function as a software company even if they don’t control the commodity market any more. In many ways I think MS is in the same situation that IBM was in two decades ago, losing control of the basic market — and thus the dominance of the market — but not necessarily going away or even necessarily shrinking.”

    Those who thought open source will be free, just needs to wait and see. It will be of a much superior quality, no doubt, but cannot be free (includes product and support). Free product will need expensive support to install and maintain. Easily maintainable product will call for a price.

    As Sherlock Holmes (the famous detective) said, that most of the things have been tried already. There are hardly any new concepts, only containers. Attempt provide free (education or reference) is not new. Think of the “Public Schools” or free government education. Are private education institutions doomed ? What about the quality ? If I am researching on a topic I will not trust Wiki. As for a graphiti of opinions on a topic “google/wiki/web/friends/rumors/all”.

    However, with Web there will be various quality slots to choose from. That is good, I mean really good. As Linus said “run for money”.

    Wiki that is “information noise”, can be music sometimes. For seroius jobs people will prefer “music of Britanica”.

    No Mr. Gerard. The believe “if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it’s going to have to be a good Wikipedia” might not be true. It will still be Encyclopedia Britannica. But a cheaper one (thanks to Wiki).

  2. David Gerard

    I should explain jargon. “Administrator” means “janitor” – clean up vandalism, do administrative nuts-and-bolts tasks, the power to block abusive users, etc. It’s about equivalent to web-board moderator. Think of someone carrying an M-16 nuclear Gatling mop and bucket ;-) Of the active editor base, something like 5-10% are administrators.

    The “Arbitration Committee” are for dealing with user interaction problems. In any massively collaborative environment you’re going to have the occasional problem or antisocial user who needs severe correction or to be shown the door. Jimbo used to deal with these personally, but (a) he doesn’t scale (b) he’s chairing the nonprofit running a top-50 website and has much more useful things he could be doing.

    I should also have mentioned one of Wikipedia’s strengths: I think we’ve mostly made it with computer and technical articles. I refer to Wikipedia first when I want to check some term I don’t understand. I am told we are also doing this well with mathematics as well. There are probably other areas where our coverage is actually really good.

    And thank you :-)

  3. David Gerard

    Discussion on my own blog at , with some excellent and thoughtful responses already.

    “Anonymous” above has good points – there’s almost always a market for service and repackaging. I’m probably wrong about EB being doomed by Wikipedia – they already suffered doom at the hands of the Internet last decade and survived notably leaner and meaner; if anyone makes it through, it’ll be them. Encarta will last as long as Microsoft wants to subsidise it. Brockhaus is sorely aware of the German Wikipedia (whose second DVD-ROM edition sold out its first 10,000 pressing at €10 a copy in two days) and is working out how to work with the nonprofit community-based newcomer instead of being ploughed under. It’s interesting times.

  4. SallyF

    David Gerard is sadly mistaken about EB being “doomed”. True, it might not ship as many hardcopy volume sets as it used to, but the current content and its reputation still have marketable value. Nobel prize winners and real-World experts will still be happy to work for it and for the recognition that being an EB author bestows. Where EB will suffer most is in cutbacks to its full-time editorial staff. That means that it will to some degree fall behind in how up-to-date its articles are. EB has a “current events” section called the “Book of the Year”. Maybe that will not be as extensive anymore if they do not have the staff for it. But it can continue, even if the print runs are not as large and even on a skeleton staff as long as that staff does not damage the reputation of the organization.

    I note in “The amorality of Web 2.0” that Jimmy Wales’ vicious reference to EB’s epitaph is only in his own mind; in his own private game of Calvinball.

    As I have said elsewhere, David Gerard is a plagiarist. He is the worst example of the amorality of Web 2.0 . He is an IT technician with no published works of his own. He would likely support any efforts to skim the cream of any new progress off of EB’s new annual editions, slightly modify it and plow it straight into the English Wikipedia. David Gerard is a credit-monger who, just like Jimmy Wales, would rather betray his editorial partners and take full credit for himself for the work of other authors. He probably applauds Jimmy Wales’ childish sniping at EB about when Jimmy was born. David Gerard is no Robert McHenry and history will remember that.

    What Wikipedia lacks is editorial judgment by its volunteers. For parents who want their children to see fine, well-organized examples of writing and reliable information on appropriate subjects, they will still invest in EB products. The future is not always so clear: Wikipedia might turn into a news and trivia organization with a huge but mediocre free encyclopedia on the side. Mabye that has already happened.

  5. SallyF

    Let me modify my previous post: David Gerard worked on the articles “Xenu” and “X Windows System”, the latter of which is useful. As you can see via the Xerox PARC WikiDashboard tool, much of the rest of his work is, in his own words, trivia and rubbish.

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