In a pithy post-Wikimania post, Dave Winer notes the “disconnect” between Wikipedia’s “promoters and the people who do the work.” The disconnect, he points out, complicates assessments of the motley encyclopedia’s attempts to enhance its quality. What’s the definition of quality, and who’s defining it? “It’s a very slippery subject, but an important one,” says Winer, “because Wikipedia pages rank so high on the web. If they didn’t, there would hardly be a reason to discuss. In the web before Wikipedia, every point of view had a chance, but Wikipedia tends toward centralization, toward one or two views prevailing …”
Much has been made about the upward creep of Wikipedia entries in search engine results, but there hasn’t yet been much discussion about what this “centralization” means. Just to double-check the phenomenon, I wrote a list, off the top of my head, of ten important and various topics to see how highly Wikipedia’s entries would rank on Google. Here are the results:
World War II: #1
George Washington: #4
Herman Melville: #3
Magna Carta: #2
That’s pretty striking, and I bet that most Wikipedia entries are continuing to move upward – and many will, like “World War II,” come to reach the top spot. In the not too distant future, we may be living in a world where the default source of information about, well, pretty much everything will be a single and not altogether reliable amateur reference work.
When critics point out the flaws in Wikipedia, its defenders are quick to respond, “It’s only an encyclopedia; you don’t use an encyclopedia as your only source.” And that used to be true. In fact, after high school few people used encyclopedias at all, at least not regularly. But now, I’m not so sure. I’d wager that a heck of a lot of people searching the web do in fact use Wikipedia as their first and sole source, or at least their major source. (Just because you think people should consult a lot of different information sources doesn’t mean that they’re actually going to.) As Winer suggests, Wikipedia’s dominance over search results may be subtly shifting the nature of the web as an information source, moving it from heterogeneity toward homogeneity. He’s right: It is an important, and slippery, subject.
UPDATE: Tom Lord continues the discussion.
UPDATE: More here.