Wikipedia’s Challenges

A fascinating article in the latest issue of MIT Technology Review details some of the challenges facing Wikipedia, the  wildly popular online encyclopedia whose ambitious goal is to “compile the sum of all human knowledge.”  In short, Vannevar Bush’s memex on mega-steroids.

The sixth most popular website in the world, Wikipedia is totally unlike the others in the top ten, mostly because it has never been commercialized.  Run by a leaderless collection of dedicated volunteer editors bound by a byzantine set of  operating guidelines, every month it gets 10 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) hits in the English version alone, and it has grown to over 4 million entries.  Although it continues to be decried by dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who question the value of crowd-sourced knowledge, it has nonetheless managed to establish itself as an authoritative voice, so much so that Google (another internet powerhouse) and Siri often pull information directly from the massive site as though it is accepted fact.

If you are like me, you have come to rely more and more on Wikipedia as a quick-and-dirty way to find info the info you need.  It is not unusual for me to query the site several times a day, and I even use it professionally (if carefully) in my teaching and research.  So it pains me to learn that the number of editors has declined, that new editors are being discouraged from contributing, that the contributor’s interface remains decidedly un-userfriendly, and that the coverage continues to be heavily skewed toward the interests of the current editors and administrators, who are estimated to be 90% male.  That translates into obsessive detail on individual Star Trek episodes (and, according to the author of the Technology Review article, female porn stars), but scant coverage on things like poetry, art, literature and any number of topics that fails to stand out on the average geeky male’s radar screen.

Wikipedia represents the highest hopes of those who originally envisioned the personal computer and the internet: authoritative knowledge freely available to anyone connected to the web, carefully curated by an self-less community of committed volunteers striving to continually improve on its quality and quantity.  No commercials.  No paywalls.  No monthly fees.  Of course, the reality of Wikipedia has always been much more complicated than that, but it would be a shame if that dream were allowed to completely wither and die.

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3 Responses to Wikipedia’s Challenges

  1. Claire

    I was heartened a few weeks ago to see a Brown University professor organize an edit-a-thon to increase focus on female scientists and technologists. In some ways the issues with Wikipedia are reminiscent to me of the ongoing debate over the literary cannon, but at least in the case of Wikipedia you can mobilize a group of dedicated scholars to have a direct impact on available, accurate content in underrepresented areas.

    http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1333828/brown-university-professor-organises-wikipedia-edit-thon-women

  2. Mitzi Vernon

    Mark —
    I share your views and concerns about Wikipedia, and I wonder if you know if there is a similar endeavor out there that focuses on the humanities only? If not that seems like a virtuous cause, perhaps a multi-university initiative of editorship.

    Thinking out loud —

  3. I’m not going to find the link right now, but a few years ago, a Russian historian launched a wikipedia initiative aimed at expanding and improving coverage of Russian history topics. It’s been a huge success. Today, for example, I looked at this page on Soviet casualties during World War II (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties_of_the_Soviet_Union_). This is an incredibly complex and contested subject, and the wikipedia entry puts most of what you need to know right out there. The fact that it’s crowd-sourced and verified brings experts from around the world into conversation with each other. Very cool.

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