Monday, August 21, 2006

# Posted 10:05 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WIKIPEDIA VS. BRITANNICA: Wikipedia has recently been honored with feature length profiles in both the New Yorker and the Atlantic. I don't suppose that's happened to Britannica lately.

But Britannica isn't out of the picture just yet. Instead, it has become the standard by which the New Yorker and the Atlantic want to measure Wikipedia. The former reports that:
Last year, Nature published a survey comparing forty-two entries on scientific topics on Wikipedia with their counterparts in Encyclopædia Britannica. According to the survey, Wikipedia had four errors for every three of Britannica’s, a result that, oddly, was hailed as a triumph for the upstart. Such exercises in nitpicking are relatively meaningless, as no reference work is infallible. Britannica issued a public statement refuting the survey’s findings, and took out a half-page advertisement in the Times.
New Yorker correspondent Stacy Schiff also conducted a sort of informal poll, asking two prominent intellectuals what they thought of their entries in Wikipedia:
When I showed the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam his entry, he was surprised to find it as good as the one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He was flabbergasted when he learned how Wikipedia worked. “Obviously, this was the work of experts,” he said. In the nineteen-sixties, William F. Buckley, Jr., said that he would sooner “live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” On Wikipedia, he might finally have his wish. How was his page? Essentially on target, he said. All the same, Buckley added, he would prefer that those anonymous two thousand souls govern, and leave the encyclopedia writing to the experts.
Yet government is at the very heart of Wikipedia, as both the New Yorker and the Atlantic make clear. The great question facing Wikipedia is how to govern the contents of a encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Wikipedia has been able to generate so much content -- 1,000,000 in English, compared to 120,000 for Britannica -- precisely because it has so few rules. As Americans know, it is very dangerous to put limits on free speech when that is the essence of what makes you great. Yet some limits are necessary.

Precisely how well Wikipedia has confronted this challenge depends on whether you prefer the New Yorker or the Atlantic. The latter recounts how Internet theorist Eric Raymond:
Coined a now-famous hacker aphorism to capture [the] superiority [of collaboration]: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” His point was simply that the speed with which a complex project is perfected is directly proportional to the number of informed people working on it...

[Vandalism] has proved much less of an issue than originally feared. A study by IBM suggests that although vandalism does occur (particularly on high-profile entries like “George W. Bush”), watchful members of the huge Wikipedia community usually swoop down to stop the malfeasance shortly after it begins...

Even though [a certain controversial] entry is often attacked by vandals, and is occasionally locked to block them, the page is more reliable precisely because it is now under “enough eyeballs.” The same could be said about many controversial entries on Wikipedia: the quality of articles generally increases with the number of eyeballs. Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.
From the New Yorker's perspective, Wikipedia has thrived -- or perhaps only survived -- because of the ever-growing thicket of rules that govern its users behavior.
In October, 2001, [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales appointed a small cadre of administrators, called admins, to police the site for abuse. Admins can delete articles or protect them from further changes, block users from editing, and revert text more efficiently than can ordinary users. (There are now nearly a thousand admins on the site.)

In 2004, Wales formalized the 3R rule—initially it had been merely a guideline—according to which any user who reverts the same text more than three times in a twenty-four-hour period is blocked from editing for a day...Wales also appointed an arbitration committee to rule on disputes. Before a case reaches the arbitration committee, it often passes through a mediation committee...

Five robots troll the site for obvious vandalism, searching for obscenities and evidence of mass deletions, reverting text as they go. More egregious violations require human intervention...Some users who have been caught tampering threaten revenge against the admins who apprehend them.
Not exactly an online utopia, eh? But still, a grand social experiment. I found both articles fascinating and was glad to learn more about a resource that I use more and more often.

In closing, let me just suggest that the purpose of Wikipedia isn't necessarily to replicate or transcend Britannica. Vast swathes of Wikipedia content would be considered far too trivial for a "serious" publication like Britannica.

For example, I like reading about my favorite professional wrestlers on Wikipedia. As it turns out, even some of the most obscure have extensive profiles.

Some might call this a waste of a labor, but I think it's a very good thing. Most people burn out when they don't waste some time on trivial pursuits. But even trivial pursuits often depend on information, from the Yankees' won-loss record in 1967 to Hulk Hogan's favorite song. I say, "Viva Wikipedia!"
(5) opinions -- Add your opinion

The Wiki keeps getting better. Google, Yahoo, EBay, and Craigslist keep getting worse. I always check the Wiki first and I'm generally pleased with the results. For Google, the long fight against link spam and the general decline of web content is a losing battle. It's a hard problem. EBay and Craiglist also suffer from the tendancy that as the web gets bigger it gets worse. Strangely, the Wiki seems immune to this.
Because wikipedia is persistent and extensible, it is likely that it will at some point become indispensible. Consider this: what if, rather than trolling through thousands of books and journal articles, you could go to a few entries on Wikipedia and get not only a layman's summary, but also in-depth reviews of extant research. For science and engineering topics, for example, this would be phenomenal.
Wasn't that the original point of developing wiki -- that it could be used as a collaborative tool by a community of experts on any given subject, or within a company.

I suppose I could go to Wikipedia and look that up.....
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