Saturday, July 26, 2008

In denial about Wikipedia

5 years ago, you would have been completely justified in being skeptical about Wikipedia. About.com was an example of what was considered better. It was controlled. The authors and editors were qualified and authoritative. Wikipedia seemed like a ridiculous exercise in utopian naïveté.

7 years into the experiment, it's clear that Wikipedia is a success. Wiki works. What was healthy skepticism increasingly looks like denial. Mostly it's just verbal sniping, but there are a number of projects that attempt to "fix" Wikipedia by restricting authorship to appropriately qualified "authorities."

Citizendium requires real names and requires all articles be approved by their group of "experts." They're not different enough nor do they have sufficient critical mass to catch up. They don't appreciate what it is that has made Wikipedia such an unstoppable force.

Conservapedia aims to fix Wikipedia's "liberal bias." What they will do about reality's known liberal bias remains unclear. Their misguided aims doom them from the start; I imagine it will be no more successful than Air America Radio.

Mahalo tries to avoid authorship altogether. They provide no information directly. It's like they took the corresponding Wikipedia article and stripped out everything but the "References" section. Their compelling advantage is thus that they provide less information and require you to do more work. Good luck with that.

Finally, Google has entered the arena with Knol, which encourages anyone to post an article on anything, and let the search algorithm sort out who's best. I thought that approach was useless when it was called Squidoo; apparently Google likes the idea, as well as the idea of giving it a dumb name. Assuming people use it, you'll end up with dozens of different pages on a single subject, all incomplete in different ways. You also cannot make a small edit to an existing article; you have to build the whole thing yourself. Just like one feature does not make a business, a single correction does not make a useful Knol.

The one fly in the ointment for Wikipedia is Google's control of the dominant search engine. Thus far, they've been true to their "don't be evil" motto in their index; if their Wikipedia jealousy causes them to pervert their search results, people will just stop using Google and go directly to Wikipedia. I already do that for many of searches (Firefox's keyword searches are indispensable). And that doesn't even get into the shrieks of delight that will echo from Redmond (Microsoft) and Sunnyvale (Yahoo) as Google's competitors contemplate what the DoJ will do in response.

Every one of these alternatives throws the baby out with the bathwater. Wikipedia's genius is how it manages to be both centralized and decentralized at the same time. What's centralized is the collection of information, something Squidoo, Mahalo, and Knol cannot match. Besides the obvious advantage of having a one-stop shop, they ignore the importance of the snowball effect; to produce a better lens or Knol, you have to start from scratch. I would be surprised if any of my regular readers has never even once made an edit to Wikipedia.

The decentralized part of Wikipedia is of course the army of authors and editors, namely, the entire population of Internet users. It turns out that really matters. Conservapedia rejects anyone who doesn't share their set of biases (i.e., most of everyone) while Citizendium puts barriers in front of anyone who might want to contribute. If there's anything we've learned in 15 years of the Web, it's that everything you put between a user and an action, no matter how seemingly trivial, chips away at the number of people who will actually bother.

These sites may improve on Wikipedia in certain narrow ways, but those improvements come at such a cost that none of them will be able to defeat Wikipedia. Wikipedia certainly could stand a few improvements. Vandalism is generally contained, but still occurs frequently. The cabal of moderators occasionally gets unhinged. Wikipedia's markup has gotten increasingly complicated as the project has adopted more sophisticated conventions for formatting and organization, restricting what a casual editor can do. Those are all real problems that Wikipedia has yet to solve. Some day, something better will come along, but these guys ain't it.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good analysis, but I still think it's too soon to make predictions about "Knol". Regarding Citizendium, they don't allow contributions from anonymous, which immediately cuts a number of people from adding content. It's too complicated to get an account there and you end up exposing too much information about yourself because they require that you put a bio on your userpage. They got a lot of good publicity when they launch, but they haven't managed to deliver content that could function as an alternative to Wikipedia.

Tim Lee did a great post about Citizendium's problems that can be read here: http://techliberation.com/2007/11/01/citizendium-turns-one-point-still-unclear/

July 26, 2008 at 5:50 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

Thanks for the compliment.

It's precisely because it's too early with Knol that I wanted to make my prediction. I wanted to state my opinion before it was obvious what was going to happen.

July 26, 2008 at 5:58 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Right on. Why fight the crowd?

July 27, 2008 at 3:13 PM  

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