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The link of least resistance

January 21, 2007

Tim Bray worries about his growing habit of linking to Wikipedia when discussing a subject. It's always "tempting," he writes, "and I’ve succumbed a lot recently." In total, he says, he's linked to The Wik nearly 400 times. But defaulting to what has become the Web's link of least resistance is starting to trouble him:

I feel like I’m breaking the rules; being able to link to original content, without benefit of intermediaries, is one of the things that defines the Web. More practically, when I and a lot of other people start linking to Wikipedia by default, we boost its search-engine mojo and thus drive a positive-feedback loop, to some extent creating a single point of failure; another of the things that the Web isn’t supposed to have.

I’d be astonished if the Wikipedia suddenly went away. But I wouldn’t be very surprised if it went off the rails somehow: Commercial rapacity, legal issues, or (especially) bad community dynamics, we’ve seen that happen to a whole bunch of once-wonderful Internet resources. If and when it did, all those Wikipedia links I’ve used ... become part of a big problem.

I'm glad to see a big Wikipedia fan like Bray worry about this. But I think that there's an even bigger issue than the potential creation of a single point of failure. And that's the creation of a single source of information (never mind, for the moment, the quality of that source). The steady and seemingly inexorable rise of Wikipedia toward the top of pretty much every simple Web search - and now it's the default information source for Google Earth as well - belies the fundamental promise of the web. It's replacing heterogeneity with homogeneity, turning abundance into self-imposed scarcity. The hegemony of Wikipedia testifies to a collective failure of curiosity and imagination.

What worries me is that Wikipedia's grandiose, and nonsensical, claim that it aims to contain "the sum of human knowledge" is on its way to becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, thanks to the Web's echo effect. That would be a shame, and we'd have only our own laziness to blame.


Guess they are going to have to add it to their list of criticisms:

Which I got from:

Definitely one site that's in danger of disappearing up it's own....

Posted by: Michael Walsh [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2007 04:29 PM

It's unfortunate, too, because Wikipedia is a decidedly skewed source of information. I don't mean politically (though there is some of that) but that it accepts certain types of information and not others. Wanting a citation for everything means that it rejects individual opinion that originates on the Web, and prizes things that have been in print, for instance. Which is REALLY what the Web is about, isn't it? (It also leads to a thudding sort of literalism-- I once added the fact that the fictional Zembla in Nabokov's Pale Fire was probably intended to evoke the fictitious kingdom in the adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda, and it was soon tagged with "source needed," as if what, they hoped Nabokov had signed a sworn affidavit to that effect at some point? Granted, it's interpretation, but of a sort so blindingly obvious...)

I agree, it's fine to link to Wikipedia if you want to explain what "woot" means, or simply for the basic fact that you mean the George Clinton who was vice president from 1805 to 1812, not the one who led Funkadelic, but for anything where you want to link to a more interesting discussion, it's too chewed-up and predigested in its content and writing style, too inconsistent across entries, and too likely to get worse rather than better at any given time to be a worthwhile place to link.

Posted by: Mgmax [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2007 04:40 PM

When it comes to Wikipedia, I am increasingly reminded of the famous comment made to Ron Suskind by a member of the Bush administration:

''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Perhaps Wikipedia's popularity is now sufficiently high that anyone with an interest in accurate information will be forced to become a contributor :-)

Posted by: BrownBear [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2007 05:25 PM

anyone with an interest in accurate information will be forced to become a contributor

Ah, the nightmare scenario. I'm going to be forced to decide, once and for all, whether I'm a Deletionist or an Inclusionist.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 21, 2007 08:43 PM

Nick: you are too elitist not to be a Delationist. Trust me on this one.

Posted by: Bertil [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2007 01:10 PM

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