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.