Nicholas Carr announces “The death of Wikipedia” in a tendentious posting that doesn’t begin to prove his point. He does point out, fairly, that some of the Wikipedia rhetoric has not matched reality (such as the flat statement that anyone can edit anything; there are some speed bumps and a few trolls are banned outright).
But his own rhetoric, which some commenters call trolling (I disagree), is surprisingly free of depth, given his record for thoughtful commentary.
Wikipedia is not, and has never been, perfect. It has always had flaws. I would never suggest that anyone use it as a single source of information, and anyone who made a big decision based on what’s posted there is a fool (just as it would be foolish to make a major life decision based even on what is in today’s New York Times; some things you have to check out for yourself).
But the questions about Wikipedia that its critics aren’t interested in asking are whether a) it’s better than nothing (it is); b) is improving (it is); and c) helps people understand the value of online collaboration (it does).
They seem to fear the idea of edge-in work that sometimes, not always but defintely sometimes, produces something better than what the annointed — through titles, degrees and, yes, achievement — might have done. I don’t understand their paranoia, and worry that it gives support to the centralizers of our world, the people who want control and don’t want the rest of us to make our own decisions and tell each other what we know.
Carr insists that a few speed bumps and modest policing shows that the wisdom of the crowd is bogus, that a top-down hierarchy will always be necessary. The model he embraces is an old one, designed for a manufacturing economy.
Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s benevolent monarch, governs with the lightest possible touch. To suggest that this is resembles a traditional hierarchy misses what is new in the collaborative world we now can share. In an open system such as Wikipedia, where no one owns the result, anyone can take the pages — all of them — and create a new ‘pedia for himself. Try that with most projects, and you’ll get arrested.
Wikipedia’s leaders can exert their “control” only with the absolute consent of the “controlled” in the community. This is a crucial distinction.
Again, Wikipedia is not perfect. But it is a valuable resource, and is getting better. That matters.
(Note: Jimmy Wales is a member of this Center’s board of advisors, and I am an investor in a company he has founded.)