In a blogospheric minute, Wikipedia has gone from Shining Example of All That’s Wonderful About the Web to Exhibit Number One for All That’s Wrong with the Web. The funny thing is, Wikipedia itself hasn’t changed at all. What it was as Hero it is as Goat. Now, I see that some eminent West Coast bloggers are talking about organizing a meeting to figure out how to fix Wikipedia. That would be a beautiful act of paternalistic condescension, but I wonder if what Wikipedia really needs right now is a bunch of well-meaning carpetbaggers talking mumbo-jumbo. Hell, that’s pretty much what got Wikipedia into this pickle in the first place.
Here’s my radical suggestion: Leave it to the Wikipedians.
Wikipedia ran into trouble because it assumed – or allowed itself, not unwillingly, to have thrust upon it – a mantle of “authority” that it neither needed nor deserved. It became a cause celebre of techno-romantics who saw it as a harbinger of an internet-enabled era of egalitarian media and universal creativity. The perception problem was exacerbated by the overweening rhetoric of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who let it be known that Wikipedia intended to become “the most authoritative source of information in the world” and that it should “market itself as an independent global resource … comparable to the Red Cross.” He may as well have stuck a “Kick Me” sign on Wikipedia’s ass.
Wikipedia is not an authoritative encyclopedia, and it should stop trying to be one. It’s a free-for-all, a rumble-tumble forum where interested people can get together in never-ending, circular conversations and debates about what things mean. Maybe those discussions will resolve themselves into something like the truth. Maybe they won’t. Who cares? As soon as you strip away the need to be like an encyclopedia and to be judged like an encyclopedia – as soon as you stop posing as an encyclopedia – you get your freedom back. You lose the need for complicated rules and restrictions and all sorts of tortured hand-wringing and navel-gazing. You don’t have to worry about critics because critics don’t have anything to criticize. Some facts are wrong? Hey, we never claimed they wouldn’t be. Someone created an entry about an imaginary being from Planet Xenat? So what were you expecting – an encyclopedia?
Dump the “authoritative” shtick. Kill the “Free Encyclopedia” tag line. Discourage the syndication of content by sites like Reference.com and Answers.com. Tell the utopianists and the A-Listers to get stuffed. Stick a little disclaimer at the top of every page that says, “Wikipedia is not intended to be an authoritative reference work and should not be used as one. If you see an error or omission, feel free to fix it.” And then go at. See what happens. Leave encyclopedia editing to the encyclopedia editors. Be Wikipedians.