Wikipedia has always been know as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”. Contrast this with this editorial recently published in The Guardian by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. In the editorial Jimmy modified his definition somewhat to now read;

(Wikipedia is) the online encyclopedia in which any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing entries on any encyclopedic topic

Purely semantics? I don’t think so. Nick cave posts about the change and says that;

The old slogan was the language of the bazaar. The new one is the language of the club.

Wikipedia, since it’s inception, has heralded a mass democratisation of information dissemination. No longer where we enslaved to the whims of the editorial boards behind Encyclopedia Britannica et al, but now we, the humble netizens could decide what was suitable for an encyclopedic tome.

But this Nirvana-esque view ignored the reality, that when people have an opportunity to discourse, they do so generally in a way that is coloured by their individual perceptions, their personal beliefs and often their prejudices.

The reality is that an entirely open forum opens itself to misinformation and the sort of post and counter-post battles that have plagued Wikipedia in the past. The very existence of editorial control is itself an admission of the failing of humankind – Wikipedia’s new definition is merely an acceptance of this fact. Wales recognises this fact and accepts that Wikipedia is about as close to the ideal as we can get when he says;

I advocate for the value of a universal encyclopedia which is accessible to everyone and which rationally puts forward the basic facts about various arguments and controversies in such a manner that newcomers to an issue can understand what the disagreement is about. Don’t tell me what to think, don’t feed me one side of the story; give me actual facts and I will think for myself to decide. And I respect you as a human being enough to return the favour.

Wikipedia tends to be written by people who are significantly more educated than average, by people who are passionate about ideas, about getting it right. This is a good thing. Because thinking is not automatic, the avoidance of bias is not automatic. A ruthless precision in thinking is a great virtue in the project. And you have to bring that kind of precision because, unlike the comfortable writers of a classic top-down encyclopedia, you are likely to be contacted and challenged if you have made a flawed argument or based your conclusion on faulty premises. Such is the virtue of the marketplace of ideas.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
  • I am not sure it is as terrible as the failing of humankind. Comments from Jimmy Wales are coming at a moment where recent criticisms have been more present than in the past. I recently read articles about students failing because of Wikipedia (at least in their parents’ opinion), CAC40 (France) enterprises complaining about the negative impact Wikipedia was bringing, …

    Co-founder Larry Sanger already left the boat 2 years ago to create a much more protected free encyclopedia: http://en.citizendium.org/. He already said then: Wikipedia is broken!

    What could bring a little bit more of control?

    1) Wikipedia is based on the auto-control of the community. Each time something wrong is added, someone else will correct it. Well, it works as long as the article is popular and there are examples of wrong elements in Wikipedia that stayed there for months. So a little bit of control would at least prevent from this.

    2) Writers are always subject to context. It is true for people writing in Wikipedia, it is also true for real historians, sociologists, etc … For example, looking at my Belgian history books, the period of the Congo colonization is far from being the same as perceived in UK (for example http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/documentaries/storyville/congo.shtml ). So my point is, everyone is subject to context but it is certainly better controlled with people that focus on delivering the truth as a live experience. It takes years of studies to become a journalist; it takes years of studies to become an historian… it takes probably even more years to start saying something with a real objective look. People writing in Wikipedia are not on the same path and in that sense a lot more subject to context to people dedicating their work to it.

    So is it really the failing of humankind? I don’t think so. I think it is the proof that objectiveness is a hard path and that everybody who wants to participate needs a lot of work on him. Putting some control on such an encyclopedia is a way to say to everyone that simple fact.

    Now, we could still let it open but then the work is on the readers. Readers need to be remembered that one source of information is not enough and so is Wikipedia. When I see those parents complaining about students failing because of Wikipedia, I am in fact quite happy. I am happy because they learned to stay critical.

    I believe a move on the two sides is probably the best thing to do.

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