March 26, 2006

Wikipedia -- Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Over the past year or so, I've found myself using the English language Wikipedia for quick and dirty summaries on people, places, and things. Oftentimes, I've been led there by Google, which is increasingly pointing to Wikipedia because the general public is now using Wikipedia as the encyclopedia of first resort.

Wikipedia is not without its major flaws and faults. As a communal voluntary effort, its content can be very uneven (as the entry on the Anglosphere highlights) and riven by political partisanship. It has been the subject of pranks and malicious content ... and it has just recently gotten into a spat with the Encyclopedia Britannica over an article in Nature comparing the accuracy of the scientific content of both (Wikipedia came out well). Nonetheless, its scope, even in comparison to some of the giant encyclopedias of distant and recent past, is impressive for a project only five years old.

In an idle moment, I investigated the growth rate of the encyclopedia and was staggered to discover that it nows adds about 1,500 articles per day ... or roughly 100,000 articles every two months. It now contains 1,045,000 articles.

Early estimates assumed that the rate of article creation would tail off, and the content would be subject to increased revision. Instead, article creation has continued, and quickened, while revision has kept pace. Theoretically people will run out of articles to add ... but there's no sign of it happening yet. What is the theoretical maximum number of articles that can go into an English-language Wikipedia? 2,000,000. 5,000,000. I'm sure it's a question that's worrying the people who pay for the Wikipedia servers and bandwidth.

With schoolkids piling on to Wikipedia for homework assignments, how much longer before we see capsule descriptions of every small town and hamlet in the English-speaking world? Not a bad assignment in itself.

Now I'm sure much of the content is considered trivial by most, error-laden by many, and certainly often obscure ... but it is also out there for revision and correction as circumstances demand. And generally speaking, I've been very content with my occasional forays into the Wikipedia for bits of trivia on geography or history or science. I needed just the bare facts. And I got them. And every ambitious grad student has an incentive to nit-pick the articles in their specialty. I can imagine the science and biography articles getting very good indeed.

And Wikipedia itself seems to me just a repetition of the civic-minded amateur natural historians, scattered about the Anglosphere, whose volunteer labour and voluminous correspondence underpinned much of the great science (and great scientists) of the 19th century. There is something very satisfying about thousands of people around the world, many of whom aren't native-speakers, generating a goliath information resource driven by their own interests and a willingness to let others meddle with what they've created. This is the Oxford English Dictionary project ... for the 21st century.

As more and more Internet traffic drives toward the English-language Wikipedia (there are other "wikipedias" in over 228 other languages but with sharply fewer entries), we see a snapshot not only of the geography of civic-mindedness but the spread of a good idea to other nations, other peoples. Wikipedia, for all its faults, sure seems like a network commonwealth to me ...

Posted by jmccormick at March 26, 2006 06:09 PM

Among other items, EVERY single Census Designated Place, be it a formal munincipality or a rural area, in the US has an article, made by a computer program.

Also, the main article on Comparitive Military Ranks was the US to the UK/Commonwealth system.

Posted by: M. Thompson at March 26, 2006 10:53 PM

The problem with Wikipedia is that its selection mechanism is perverse. Open source software works well because it's fairly obvious when software doeesn't work -- thus you have both variation and selection according to useful selection criteria. Wikipedia articles, however, are in the end controlled by those who are willing to devote time to the matter, which (particularly when writing about politically contentious topics) is no guarantee that the information is right. The Anglosphere entry is an example of this, and in general Wikipedia entries on politically contentious subjects pile up conspiracy-theory nonsense, and in general suffer from a lowest-common-denominator problem. The more it takes off, the more depressed I get abouut it.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at March 27, 2006 10:30 AM

I use hyperlinks to Wikipedia resources as references within my own blog. I am aware of the shortfalls Wikipedia has but I support the cause (until it gets hijacked that is).

A collaborative, and ostensibly open-ended project like this has got to be the way to go, and it isnt knowledge for profit (yet).

Having said all that I find Hutchinson's an invaluable partner.

Posted by: Eric North at March 27, 2006 11:53 AM

Wrote a stub on the Sinosphere on the English version of Sinosphere today. Come and hhave a look and see what you think, and if necessary, make some corrections:

Posted by: Joel at March 29, 2006 03:17 PM
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