In last year’s Encyclopedia Update we checked on the progress of Nupedia [http://www.nupedia.com], the “open content” Web-based encyclopedia. This time around we look at Wikipedia, a “complementary encyclopedia project” that we found as a link from the Nupedia home page. Nupedia editor-in-chief Larry Sanger is one of Wikipedia’s founders.
What is Wikipedia? For starters it’s an online encyclopedia, something like Nupedia, but different, in that you, or anyone else, can not only contribute an article but can make changes to anyone else’s article. A Wiki, it seems, is—well, we’re still not sure, but it’s just one of many new-to-us terms we encountered on the site, along with flame-wars, slashdotted, and more. The approach is the opposite of Nupedia’s, which has good content but gets bogged down in its peer review process. At Wikipedia anything gets posted, good or bad, and then, the theory goes, is corrected, expanded, refined, and fashioned into a real encyclopedia article as more people interact with it.
Wikipedia started in January 2001 and already has more than 35,000 articles. Searching is rudimentary, and quality varies tremendously. There are long, detailed articles on game theory and Alexander the Great along with entries for every character on The Simpsons. Information on Afghanistan ranges from a lengthy survey of the nation’s history, with a fairly extensive list of references, to an entry on the military that merely lists a few statistics and cites no sources. New pages added on August 1 include the brief but adequate Broccoli, Prairie, and Social realism and the incomprehensible (“KM [short for Katten Mickelin] is a deity within Kmism”). There are policies about using copyrighted material and maintaining a neutral point of view, but there is no overall editorial plan. At this early stage, Wikipedia is more about the process than about someone looking for an article on space exploration or the Civil War.
What about authority and reliability and all the other things we’ve been taught to look for in an encyclopedia? We were prepared to hate Wikipedia, but were disarmed when we got to the section “Wikipedia: Our Replies to Our Critics,” which answered all these questions and more. The Wikipedians admit that coverage is limited and unbalanced, that a lot of the articles are mediocre, that content is vulnerable to partisans and cranks. But though they do plan to institute a review process whereby some articles will be frozen as the “approved” versions (even as the revision process continues), they believe that their process of continuous editing means that articles can only improve. Bad content will be edited out, and good content will rise to the top, like cream: “As further edits accumulate, the quality of the article moves asymptomatically towards perfection, and likewise the quality of the encyclopedia as a whole.” Maybe. We’ll keep an open mind. —Mary Ellen Quinn
(Booklist/September 15, 2002)
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