Let Wikipedia be Wikipedia

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.

10 thoughts on “Let Wikipedia be Wikipedia

  1. Eric Sohn

    Perhaps you should be a bit stronger in your categorization of what Wikipedia is not:

    Wikipedia, by definition, cannot be viewed as an authoritative source at any given period of time, on any specific piece of information. As long as there is no up-front gatekeeper preventing edits that cause incorrect information to be posted, whether intentional or inadvertent, it must be taken with a grain of salt.

    The size of that grain depends on the level of potential controversy or dispute regarding the subject matter, and the inherent level of motivation of those opposed to one set of “facts” to post their own view of reality. Imagine the potential edits or re-edits to Wikipedia posts on Shakespeare and the disputed authorship of some of his works. People passionate about their view on the subject might edit the posts to conform to their view, regardless of whether or not those edits jibe with the information published in print encyclopedias. One can, without much effort, also realize that many political biographies and historical overviews, especially those of recent vintage, would represent significant minefields in this regard, as would any pop-culture topic.

    And that’s without much noodling around on the topic.

    There is a significant difference between “Wikipedia isn’t authoritative” and “Wikipedia can’t be authoritative”. Under the current regime, the latter is more accurate.

  2. gmlk

    Wikipedia is a wonderful tool to find opinions about unknown subject and themes. With the articles history and the discussions about the articles one can often see the development of the text and understand the reasoning that went into it.

    It’s good scholarly practise to research in multiple sources, and wikipedia is just one such source. Authority should not be given lightly to any source without proper investigation, also one should remember that past performance does not guarantee future results: Even trusted authorities can make mistakes and stumble.

  3. Bert Armijo

    Wikipedia “shouldn’t” be authoritative. By it’s nature Wikipedia has a social pulse. It lives and breathes and grows. To make it authoritative would require nailing this infant’s foot to the floor.

  4. TechTrader

    Maybe Gartner could do a hype cycle for DotCommers. It’s interesting to watch the techies take a good idea and extrapolate it to mean that they have created a new vision of world peace. I mean, Flickr is just a photo-sharing site. Just because it got bought by Yahoo! doesn’t mean that it has created a new paradigm for social interaction. Maybe it did for out of work Internet consultants (uh, I mean Remote Internet Architects), but it didn’t for the people who live in between NYC and SF. You know, the ones that won the last election?

  5. Bob

    Perhaps the problem is that people assume that most things only have one correct answer. Life’s generally not like that and the Shakespear mention above is a good example.

    If people spent less time re-editing other peoples words and just appended their thoughts on a topic as an alternative view we could all go back to enjoying wikipedia for what it is. A damn good read.

  6. erik garrison

    Nicholas, you would do well to read this study by Nature on why Wikipedia is as good as Britannica. Nature conducted a study of 42 articles on scientific topics. Articles from both Britannica and Wikipedia were given to experts in the topics they dealt with. Wikipedia’s error rate was around 4 per article, and Britannica’s was around 3. If one factors in the length of the articles themselves, Wikipedia’s longer articles give it an advantage. Furthermore, on topics in which contemporary research is very important, such as “quark,” Wikipedia’s ability to rapidly adapt to new knowledge allows it to do far better than Britannica.

    You write a blog. This blog isn’t about your personal life; it’s about the web in general. From that detail I guess that you probably want to be considered an expert in your field of interest. You want people to come to you, to cite you and respect you. This will increase your power and make you feel good; respect gives meaning to your work. I feel that you, like many in the blogosphere, are deeply biased in this sense.

    I can’t tell if Wikipedia threatens you or if you just think it’s a silly experiment in social creativity. The first you’d never admit. I infer the second from the manner in which you look down on the project and its ability to provide a useful, valuable service whose coherency and accuracy have steadily increased since its inception. Just letting “Wikipedia be Wikipedia” can mean many things; to you it seems those words imply a future in which the free encyclopedia will only serve as a general, imprecise reference for pop culture. To me it implies the possibility that by being different, by allowing the potential integration of more perspectives and experiences into its creative base, Wikipedia can be better than anything we’ve ever seen before.

    Communications technology changes the mode of production. Wikipedia demonstrates this change in a highly concrete and practical way. In a post-industrial society whose life blood has long coursed through a global telecommunications network, these changes may be far more radical than anyone who operates under the old paradigm of information production and dissemination might possibly believe.

  7. Tony Safina


    I agree with your comments about Wikipedia for many reasons, not the least of which is it’s another tool upon which infomation gatherers may depend upon, at least for a start if not a definitive answer. I do online, web, and library research to facilitate personal injury, medical malpractice, and products liability litigation. It does not matter to me whether I start a search with PubMed, Cecil’s Textbook of Medicine, the archives of The New England Journal of Medicine, or the Wikipedia. Truth is found in numbers. No one resource can be relied upon to have all the answers no matter how many peers review its veracity. For me to believe what I read it has to appear in more than one authoritative resource. And, in the unlikely event it only does appear in one authoritative resource then I have to have expert opinions that that one resource provides a definitive answer. You cannot win or defend a case if you don’t have proof that a jury can find believeable. My point is the fact that anyone who gets on Wikipedia’s case because not everything written there is guaranteed to be 100% accurate is nothing but bull poopie. There is no single source that can be considered definitive and people should not assume this is even possible. It is my experience the Wikipedia is usually accurate but if I have to know the truth I look for it in multiple places. Anyone with half a brain should do the same thing.

    Tony Safina

    POB 6527

    Shepherdville, KY


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