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Why Wikipedia isn't like Linux

And why Britannica isn't sweating

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Letters We have more letters for and against Wikipedia. There's much less snarling and YDGIs ["You don't Get It!"] from the project's supporters this time. Here, we'll discuss a much-quoted comparison by enthusiasts of "collective intelligence" between Wikipedia and Linux.

But first we asked the Encyclopedia Britannica if it was concerned about the project. Not really, spokesman Tom Panelas told us:

"People who use Wikipedia either wouldn't have done anything before - they didn't go to the library to get the information - or they're people who are using Wikipedia and Britannica, and others. To some degree, the rising tide lifts all boats," he said.

"The Wikipedia people seem happy to overstate its merits and understate its shortcomings," says Panelas.

Panelas blames reporters for suspending disbelief and becoming "embedded".

(That's because as a priori believers in "collective intelligence", they're not too fussy about making the details (or "facts" as we like to call 'em) fit the theory. Reporters like Newsweek's Steven Levy are essentially propagandists or evangelists for the idea, and overlook quality issues and consequences.)

Something that aspires to be an encyclopedia should be judged by what it omits, and the weight given to important subjects, he adds.

"An Encyclopedia has a certain character to it that involves not just accuracy but a personal level of eloquence or balance. Subjects are supposed to be covered in proportion to their significance; those values of accuracy don't seem obvious to people, but they sense when it's not there."

Quality doesn't matter to everyone, but it does matter to very many people, Panelas says -

"Some people need scrupulously accurate information, and some people are happy with myths and misinformation. Sometimes you just need some information, and sometimes you need accurate information."

That's a point echoed by former Britannica editor Robert McHenry, who spoke to us last week. With entropy now setting in, Wikipedia has a choice between remaining utopian and open, or improving its quality with real expertise.

"There are two kind of users, and both have something in common: they have a question that needs an answer. But a subset strongly desires that the answer should be correct."

[McHenry's column this week touches on the subject here.

Was McHenry concerned about "inforot", or worried that our children might ISNOT be learning much from Wikipedia?

"I'm not that concerned - the process of what we're doing is bringing critical tools to bear upon Wikipedia. It's the case that it's been quite a success so far on their own terms: where they themselves define success."

"But it isn't successful, and looks like it won't be."

Why is it failing?

"Because they've boxed themselves in by ideology. The more they try to impose standards, the more the utopian user community will peel away and find something else to do."

"It was always a doomed idea. It was bad from the start. But it's got the public playing the encyclopedia game. To extend the analogy, it's also like playing a game in the sense that playing it has no consequences. If something goes wrong, you just restart. No problem!"

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