Can Wikipedia Have Its Cake And Eat It Too? – by “Inoli H”

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Although in a guest lecture at Yale University last Wednesday Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, said that Wikipedia is not meant to be used as a reference for college level work, his team at Wikipedia certainly seems to be working to make it able to be. Perhaps it’s not their intent to make Wikipedia a viable source for research, but their effort to make it more reliable is showing.

Making Wikipedia more reliable means taking more control over what goes into it and, to an extent, who edits it. Obviously this causes a problem for the utopia-minded Wikipedian who holds to the ideal that launched Wikipedia – creating a free source of information to which everyone freely contributes and from which everyone freely benefits.

However, the need to sensor what goes into Wikipedia is becoming more and more evident as new policies are instituted by the organization. For example, Wikipedia now screens changes to articles about living people. In his guest lecture, Jimmy Wales shared that someone had once edited the article about him to say that he enjoyed playing chess with his friends in his spare time. Although this might be a nice idea, it simply wasn’t true. The rumor eventually found its way to an article about Mr. Wales in a major magazine. Although a minor case, this shows how far false information that is planted in Wikipedia can go before being noticed or addressed. In a more serious issue World Net Daily founder, Joseph Farah, had false information posted about him in Wikipedia that kept recurring even after he would repeatedly correct the malicious errors. It wasn’t until Mr. Farah threatened to file suit that Wikipedia acted on the situation.

Other recent restrictions on editing, besides the page “protection” mentioned above, include giving privileges to established editors to “flag” articles and using an optional feature called WikiTrust that color codes changes based on the reputation of its editor. As you can see, it may be difficult for a newcomer to Wikipedia to contribute substantially to the wealth of information stored on the website. His edits may be color coded as less reliable or placed on hold until a more experienced editor flags them. Changes by more experienced editors also seem more likely to stay on the site than those of newcomers.

This only adds to the other large problem Wikipedia is facing – a decline in editing. Obviously as Wikipedia grows older and there is less to add to it, the excitement of being the first to write about something is less abundant. The growth curve is inevitably becoming less sharp. But if Wikipedia wishes to to continue to grow, the  question then becomes, “How can Wikipedia make itself a more reliable source without adopting xenophobic policies that inhibit new editors?” For this question, I do not readily have an answer, but it seems clear that if Wikipedia wishes to increase its reputation as a source of factual information, it must be willing to sacrifice the dream of having a well of information that is freely editable by anyone.

I imagine that Wikipedia will make this sacrifice as they continue to become more and more fixed in our society. With the release of the WikiReader this past Tuesday it is clear that Wikipedia is not going anywhere any time soon. This contrasts with Santa Clara law professor Eric Goldman’s prediction that Wikipedia will fall by 2010. However, true to Goldman‘s conjecture, Wikipedia is progressively tightening the rein on site edits as it fights to gain more credibility. It seems as though Wikipedia is eating the cake and give up the dream of a 100% freely editable source of information. So much for Utopia. It’s time for Wikipedia to grow up. (Pun intended)

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3 thoughts on “Can Wikipedia Have Its Cake And Eat It Too? – by “Inoli H”

  1. It’s interesting that Wikipedia doesn’t have any effective competitors, since it’s obviously priced everyone out of the market. Even if Wikipedia were to go crazy in either direction (allowing for free editing or trying to cultivate reliability), it doesn’t seem like it’d be possible for anyone else to really displace them…not for years to come.

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  2. Yeah–Google Knol was an interesting attempt to replace Wikipedia which failed quite thoroughly. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knol (it’s ironic/fitting that I turned to the Wikipedia article to give background on it.) If Google can’t do it, I’d imagine few will bother trying. There’s such a huge barrier to entry to reach the body of content Wikipedia has built up. The only real challenger could be a bunch of niche sites. For example, IMDb is better than Wikipedia when it comes to movies and TV, and is a relatively open environment. It seems possible that Wikipedia could be attacked by a bunch of more niche offerings that collectively cover their own area better than Wikipedia can.

    Also, important to remember WikiReader was not put out by Wikimedia and is a pretty useless product. Anyone with a cell phone can reach Wikipedia easier/for money they are already paying. It’s actually a bit surprising that it’s a legal product.

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  3. Yeah, I agree with Eric. Wikipedia may be trying to become more reliable, but it isn’t a necessary goal for them to survive. Its use as a general collection of knowledge is useful for many different purposes, so it’s not really a big deal if people are going to other sources to write their research papers. For most other purposes, people consider Wikipedia to be reliable enough. If they continued to just maintain the site and update it, I’m sure that they wouldn’t crash and burn in a few years.

    The WikiReader does seem to be pretty useless, as Sam says. First of all, it doesn’t have a very big target audience. Most younger people have mobile devices that they can access Wikipedia on (in color, with pictures!). Those without these mobile devices are probably content with just pulling out their laptop or going on a nearby computer to use Wikipedia. Also, the fact that the device isn’t WiFi-enabled, so it can’t automatically update, takes away even more appeal. One of the main benefits of Wikipedia is that it is always up-to-date and has articles about current events.

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