Why Wikipedia isn't like Linux

And why Britannica isn't sweating

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To sum up a long and articulate email, Daan Strebe describes Wikipedia as oversold, but "good enough". Only the naïve trust it completely, he argues:

"The high entropy characterizing many articles isn't much of a problem as long as one uses Wikipedia for what's it's good for. Obviously you must stay away from controversial topics and ephemeral pop-culture material, but those are no real limitation since such topics tend to be represented well elsewhere anyway. Fortunately such articles provide a fine magnet for Wiki-diddlers who might otherwise be drawn to vandalizing some of the better, if less popular, articles."

"The criticisms against Wikipedia certainly hold up if one judges Wikipedia as an authoritative reference. Perhaps its promoters try to advertise it as one. I think of it only as a reference lacking authority, like the rest of the Web. It's a convenient repository for people to archive (more or less) encyclopedic material they otherwise would have created a custom web page for, with all its hazards of obsolete links and expiring domain names. Wikipedia thereby has proved very useful."

Baz Leighton begs to differ. Being OK in parts isn't good enough. He says, quite simply:

"Edit Delete "Wikipedia" Insert " Wonkipedia" End"

Ian Johnston raises an ironic point often overlooked, and brings a familiar tale:

"Am I right in thinking that the Wikipedia devotees who prides themselves on despising authority (I'm sorry, that should have been "so-called authority") are, by and large, the same bunch who whine that Wikipedia isn't accepted as a reputable reference ... that it is not seen as an authority?"

Yes. And Ian describes how his one experience of Wikipedia's inforot and entropy deterred him from ever contributing again:

"I've only had one quick and experimental experience with the damn thing myself. I corrected some howling, stupid, this-will-get-you-a-fail-in-first-year-engineering-exams mistakes in the article on the Joule cycle (gas turbine). My corrections were undone - back to the howling mistakes - within less than an hour."

And Bryn Jones adds -

"My personal view of Wikipedia is that it's a great reference tool for forum trolls. In fact I think it should be renamed 'Forumtroll.org'. Anybody who uses it for anything else (besides maybe winning an argument - which google can do too) is asking for trouble."

Speaking of which, info-rot is now infecting Google's dictionary:

"I noticed the line about Wikipedia clogging Google, and was struck immediately by the fact that Wikipedia entries not only appear in regular Google searches, but in those using the 'define' operator alongside such projects as WordNet at Princeton and so forth," writes Guy Edwards.

"Perhaps Google needs to introduce a marker of reliability for its 'define' entries?"

We'll ask.

Now for something resembling an official rebuttal - a very friendly email from David Gerard, a senior Wikipedia "administrator/janitor". He writes, "Wikipedia is of mediocre quality with some really good bits".

Of Encyclopedia Britannica, David says "It's of consistent high quality, it's one of the truly great books of Anglophone culture and it's doomed."

Oh. Why does David want to replace something truly great and of high quality with something mediocre? He says it's inevitable:

"Commercial encyclopedias are doomed anyway because, as Microsoft is finding out with Linux, it's hard to compete with free.

"If we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it's going to have to be a good Wikipedia, because everything else will have been undercut. So those who care about getting a good encyclopedia are going to have to work out how to make Wikipedia better, or there won't be anything."

Which implies that McHenry's subset of people who care about quality is too small to make a difference. Ah, quality: it's the Elephant In The Room, and Wiki people either say quality doesn't exist ("all sources have errors") or that quality doesn't matter.

This brings us to the Linux comparison you've been waiting for so patiently. The Hive Mind people often like to lump the two together.

Reader Steve Thair puts it this way. "Why is Wikipedia - an encyclopedia where people contribute their work for free = 'bad', while Open-source software - computer programs where people contribute their work for free = 'good'. Somewhere there has to be a key difference in the process OR a key difference in the perceptions of the output of that process.

The two produce very different results, argues Carlo Graziani, and only if you willfully misunderstand the social relations of the Linux kernel project can you compare the two. He puts it very succinctly indeed:

I'm relieved to see other people are also wary of information that they get from a source whose organizing principle appears to be that twenty jackasses make an expert.

Although after reading your take on Wikipedia, it appears that the actual situation is worse - the output produced by twenty jackasses plus one expert is indistinguishable from what would be produced by twenty-one jackasses.

The odd thing is, many of the jackasses that you angered really should know better.

They are huge fans of the most conspicuous success story in the history of Internet-based collaboration: the Linux kernel. Which is not produced by a radically-democratic value-neutral mob, but rather by a pyramidal hierarchy of maintainers - experts, so judged by their peers - who exercise strong control over what code is allowed in the kernel tree.

It's worth reflecting on the reason Wiki-kernel would never fly: code actually has to work, not merely be written.

I think that's very worth noting.

The elusive beastie called "Collective Intelligence" slips from sight, while the Elephant In The Room called "Quality" just gave us another swish of its tail. ®

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