Thursday, October 27, 2005

fyi Why Wikipedia isn't like Linux


Pointer to article:

Kobielus kommentary:
Actually, this article hinges on another comparison: Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Brittanica. Or Wikipedia vs. all traditional encyclopedias. Not just Wikipedia vs. Linux and other open source projects.

All of those comparisons are bogus, but especially those vis-à-vis traditional encyclopedias. And the “bogosity” (stick that in your Funk and Wagnalls) stems from presumptuous assumptions being made by everybody on this discussion: that an “encyclopedia” is or should be some authoritative source of all knowledge; and that one encyclopedia is all you should ever need for all your information needs.

Hey, folks, when’s the last time you consulted an encyclopedia of any sort when doing research? Or, when’s the last time you made an encyclopedia the first and last place you consulted when doing research? And it’s not an issue of Google and other search engines supplanting traditional reference works. I’m asking you to cast your minds back before the days of the ubiquitous Web, back when people visited physical locations known as “libraries,” and when people actually bought physical items called “books” that they kept in their homes.

Even back then, in the day, an encyclopedia, if you used it, was just the place where you dipped your information-seeking toes in the water of collective human knowledge. It was the place you started to familiarize yourself with some un- or semi-familiar topic, before moving onto other books, journals, magazines, newspapers, microfilm, and other materials where you could go in depth.

And, even if you, sitting in a physical public library, consulted an encyclopedia, you were likely to consult two or more encyclopedias—assuming you were in a library that had the budget and need for alternative encyclopedias. There has always been competition in the encyclopedia market. Many of us growing up bought the reader-friendly World Book series for our homes, but, when we went to high school or college, also consumed Brittanica, F&W, and whatever was available.

Now there’s Wikipedia, which has the great advantage of being free and being continually refreshed from all over the planet. Yeah, it’s got its strengths and weaknesses. But so do traditional encyclopedias. World Book, for example, too surface-oriented glossy. Encyclopedia Brittanica too ploddingly academic—and tiny typeface.

There’s room for all these reference works. If you’re a serious researcher—or even a semi-clued-in one—you’ll cycle through all these sources as need be. But you’ll be even more likely just to Google it and follow your queries through link after link through cross-references.

Which is how, come to think of it, the best researchers have navigated through the hardcover/hardcopy world of traditional encyclopedias, in which the cross-references between sections have always been just as important as the content of any particular section. The cross-references are the semantic map of the overall knowledge space, as managed by the editors of the encyclopedia.

That’s all there in Wikipedia too, but Web-based from the get-go. Developed from scratch in a reference medium where cross-referencing is part of its fundamental DNA.

So, IMHO, Wikipedia’s OK. But it’s not the authoritative source of all knowledge. Nor is any traditional encyclopedia. Nor is any particular library or other collection of informational materials.

No, IMHO, I’m the authoritative source on any particular topic, as long as I can gather all the relevant materials I need, from wherever, and sift/analyze/synthesize them into new knowledge that I can share with the world. Each of us is the authoritative source of whatever little knowledge-building project we choose to undertake at any time.

In the process of becoming an autodidact, we must also become an omnididact (made that one up too).

Which is the Wikipedia dynamic, isn’t it?