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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worse_is_better – 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 http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/Article_validation_feature and http://meta.wikimedia.org/wiki/En_validation_topics – 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.