With well over ten million articles to date, Wikipedia has evaded overt corporate influence through a non-profit structure and currently ranks among the top ten most visited sites on all of the web. Or so it would seem.
Of course, all of that sounds about right; but, since the above information is entirely derived from Wikipedia itself we can’t really be too sure, can we?
And even if these facts are true they could have been altered or deleted by the time you verify them for yourself. Such is the trouble with Wikipedia. But is that reason enough to dismiss it entirely? Critics like Andrew Keen certainly think so.
In his recent book, The Cult of the Amateur (2007), Keen describes Wikipedia’s “free, user generated content” as a “threat” to “professional institutions” — including both expert offices (like Nobel laureates) and expert resources (like Encyclopedia Britannica). Keen argues that “…few of us have special training, knowledge, or hands-on experience to generate any kind of real perspective” apart from basic, personal opinion.
Keen is hardly alone in this view. And while his argument may be a bit blunt — not to mention somewhat hostile to community-sourced projects like this site — it does contain some truth and is worth keeping in mind.
Still, others are less categorically dismissive of Wikipedia’s presence and popularity, electing, rather, to look beyond these obvious flaws to examine how the site is used.
In an essay from his non-fiction collection, Content (2008), Cory Doctorow observes:
What’s most fascinating about [Wikipedia] entries isn’t their “final” text as currently present on Wikipedia. It is the history page for each, blow-by-blow revision lists that make it utterly transparent where the bodies were buried on the way to arriving at whatever Truth has emerged.
Wikipedia is therefore not simply a replacement for more traditional resources but an entirely different sort of historical artefact altogether.
Consider, for example, James Bridle‘s recent experiment with printing a single Wikipedia article — “The Iraq War” (from December 2004 and November 2009) — into a twelve volume collection that includes: “…arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes ‘Saddam Hussein was a dickhead’.”
Seeing it in print makes Wikipedia feel a bit different, doesn’t it?
So why can’t we draw on both Wikipedia and more traditional resources — (at the same time) and use them to keep each other in balance?
If David Foster Wallace can establish a tense but sensible peace between the dictionary and usage guides in his maddening (but brilliant) essay, “Authority and American Usage” from Consider the Lobster (2006), then such a thing is not only possible but practical.
We should give Wikipedia a chance: it might be worth the trouble after all.
Where Wikipedia has thus far evaded overt corporate influence, they have proven rather prone to targeted manipulation and influence. Consider, for example, a recent attempt to alter Wikipedia entries (related to aircraft purchases) from Canadian air force computers in Winnipeg. It won’t be the last scandal, either.
I have refrained from italicizing “Wikipedia” in this post due to the frequency with which it appears.
Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Cory Doctorow, Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future (San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2008).