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Encouraging signs from the Wikipedia project, where co-founder and überpedian Jimmy Wales has acknowledged there are real quality problems with the online work.

Criticism of the project from within the inner sanctum has been very rare so far, although fellow co-founder Larry Sanger, who is no longer associated with the project, pleaded with the management to improve its content by befriending, and not alienating, established sources of expertise. (i.e., people who know what they're talking about.)

Meanwhile, criticism from outside the Wikipedia camp has been rebuffed with a ferocious blend of irrationality and vigor that's almost unprecedented in our experience: if you thought Apple, Amiga, Mozilla or OS/2 fans were er, ... passionate, you haven't met a wiki-fiddler. For them, it's a religious crusade.

In the inkies, Wikipedia has enjoyed a charmed life, with many of the feature articles about the five-year old project resembling advertisements. Emphasis is placed on the knowledgeable articles (by any yardstick, it's excellent for Klingon, BSD Unix, and Ayn Rand), the breadth of its entries (Klingon again), and process issues such as speed.

"We don't ever talk about absolute quality," boasted one of the project's prominent supporters, Clay Shirky, a faculty tutor at NYU. But it's increasingly difficult to avoid the issue any longer.

Especially since Wikipedia's material is replicated endlessly on the web: it's the first port of call for "sploggers" who create phoney sites, spam blogs, which created to promote their clients in Google.

Wales was responding to author Nicholas Carr, who in a dazzling post on the transcendent New Age "hive-mind" rhetoric that envelops the "Web 2.0" bubble, took time out to examine the quality of two entries picked at random: Bill Gates and Jane Fonda.

He wasn't impressed by what he saw.

"This is garbage, an incoherent hodge-podge of dubious factoids that adds up to something far less than the sum of its parts," he wrote.

Something that aspires to be a reference work ought to be judged by the quality of the worst entry, he said, in response to the clock-stopped, right-time defense of the project, not by the fact it's got some good articles.

"In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing - it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness," writes Carr.

Only it isn't.

"An encyclopedia can't just have a small percentage of good entries and be considered a success. I would argue, in fact, that the overall quality of an encyclopedia is best judged by its weakest entries rather than its best. What's the worth of an unreliable reference work?"

Why, as an Emergent Phenomenon™ it provides a subject that can be used for countless hours of class study for people like Clay Shirky, of course. Good for him - but what about the rest of us?

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