Wikipedia is doomed whatever it does… or not as the case may be

February 13, 2009

Wikipedia is a globally recognized sprawling mass of information – a veritable smörgåsbord of knowledge that is put within easy grasp of our fingertips. But it could be doomed to failure because of its very nature.

The chances are you, like me, often use Wikipedia. You, like me, may realize there’s a chance that the information you are reading is inaccurate or slightly misleading, but you, like me, take that risk regardless. Because it’s a comprehensive knowledge base, and it’s free. Oh, and it also appears at or near the top of most Google searches.

Wikipedia works, and only exists, because of a dedicated group of individuals who take the time and effort to add or edit thousands of entries on every subject under the sun. But these knowledgeable and well-meaning folk can’t be everywhere at once, which leaves room for spammers and vandals to have their wicked way on the site.

This is a problem because it has lead many to dismiss Wikipedia’s efforts to educate the world. They argue that there is too much misinformation on the site to make it worthwhile. And Wikipedia faces a dilemma in how to affect a change in this department.

According to Ars Technica, law professor Eric Goldman believes the site is doomed whichever way it decides to turn, and in his opinion, it has set itself up for its own fall. He argued this case at the Silicon Flatirons conference in Colorado.

The thrust of his argument is that Wikipedia has two options: keep the site as it is, with a free-for-all of editing; or make the site more closed, allowing only trusted parties to edit articles, or at least the high-profile or important ones. Both options come with risks, risks that Goldman believes will lead to failure.

To keep the site editable as it at the moment, Wikipedia will have to replace the current editors and admin as they retire or die off (it happens). But Goldman claims that these editors and admin are a league unto themselves, and seem to exhibit almost xenophobic-like qualities towards newcomers. What’s more, the rewards are few and far between for this group of people, so unless incentives are created, new blood will be hard to find.

Alternatively, if Wikipedia closes its doors and becomes harder to edit by us riff-raff ordinary folk then the site loses its whole appeal. Those same editors that aren’t exactly welcoming as it is may exit because their workload will increase and the site will have become something they hadn’t envisioned/didn’t want to be a part of.

This is a very pessimistic view on the whole thing, and it’s one I don’t really subscribe to. Wikipedia does need to figure out a way of dealing with the increasing levels of spam and vandalism but surely there is a middle way that could please everyone? Regardless, as I said above, most of us use the site knowing the dangers of spreading non-facts anyway, and that is unlikely to change until a better alternative comes along.

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2 Responses to “Wikipedia is doomed whatever it does… or not as the case may be”

  1. DavidB:

    It is a common joke in my business (it says so on Wikipedia so it must be true). I love the site myself, its often my starting point if I’m bored and caught up in my RSS reader. But if Wikipedia wants a future of relevance, they need to solve this conundrum. Maybe crowdsourcing (voting up/down edits before they are inserted as “main body” text?) has got to be part of the solution.

  2. DavidB:

    It is a common joke in my business (it says so on Wikipedia so it must be true). I love the site myself, its often my starting point if I’m bored and caught up in my RSS reader. But if Wikipedia wants a future of relevance, they need to solve this conundrum. Maybe crowdsourcing (voting up/down edits before they are inserted as “main body” text?) has got to be part of the solution.

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