In Defense of Wikipedia

A recent blog exchange with Microsoft’s Alfred Thompson inspired me to write about Wikipedia and the future of collaborative document creation.
Stories have been told on painted caves, chiseled stone, clay and wax tablets, papyrus scrolls, and bound books – but stories are always recorded in a linear fashion.
Writing styles change with the introduction of each new technical advancement – beginning with our primitive writing instruments affecting the shapes of our letters.
Leaps in writing technology enable individuals to communicate more freely; while the establishment relunctantly goes along “kicking and screaming.” The Church wasn’t “pleased” with the invention of the printing press, nor governmental leaders happy with the distribution of cheap printed flyers and gazettes. Later the “literary world” fought “Dime Store Novels,” saying they were trash.
Our English language is continually evolving. Forget reading Chaucer or Shakespeare – simply try reading letters written 150 years ago; then you’ll appreciate that Ken Burns read the PBS Civil War Letters TO you!
Today both Email and Instant Messaging are dramatically changing how we spell and construct sentences. We have no problem assimilating these changes gradually, but these are now changing at an accelerated pace. We all think the rules of grammar and spelling of “our day” are important, but English continues to evolve regardless how hard we wish to etch our rules into stone.
The World Wide Web gave us documents with “hyperlinks” – this simple technical addition not only removes the constraints of writing a linear narrative, but also provided the ability for many authors to collaborate on a single document.
Since we have no historic examples of non-linear story telling, we’re inventing this as we go! Video games are one example of (interactive) non-linear story telling. And the new Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOG) are our first attempts at collaborative story telling!
Online diaries didn’t become popular until “blogging” software made them easy – the ability to collaborate on documents didn’t’ become popular until “wiki” software made them easy.
Wikis are now being used in companies to build internal knowledge bases. Some wikis are maintained by professionals, but can be viewed by others. “Wikipedia,” is the ultimate social experiment, allowing ANYONE to add or change its content. Understandably, a document written and edited by the masses seems like anarchy. But a defaced document quickly gets corrected.
Mainstream online news articles don’t include external links to their source material. They provide links to click around their advertisements, or to additional articles on their own site. And thanks to FCC deregulations, mainstream press share all of their content – meaning not only will you READ the same news reports – but you’ll HEAR it on radio, SEE it on TV and then it will be streamed back as a Podcast.
When magazines and newspapers make a correction to a story, it’s not made to the original article, but printed in the errata section in a subsequent issue. A person reading any past articles would never know if it contained mistakes without tracking down any future corrections.
My local television news has a “Cyber Guy” computer reporter that sometimes gives misguided and incorrect advice. This is my personal area of expertise, and I feel can make this comment – should I also assume their “professional” Business Reporter has the same track record for being correct?
Wikipedia has no advertisements, and includes many external links for reference. Wikipedia is a great single source of information; but it’s also a second, third and forth reference. When a professional encyclopedia writes about the Tsetse Fly, their professional entomologist (bug expert) writes that section – and most of the other articles on “bugs.” Articles on Wikipedia are written by a much larger group of (amateur) authors with more specific knowledge then the professional “generalist.” Make a change to the Tsetse Fly article, and it will be scrutinized by many Tsetse Fly experts.
Wikipedia lacks the polish of a professionally written and edited commercial encyclopedia with a single cohesive structure – but the collaborative power of thousands of amateur writers maintaining over 800,000 articles in their specific area of expertise is amazing! The cream always rise to the top, and these articles are continually being updated and refined.
Wikis are replacing the traditional encyclopedia structure, RSS Feeds replace how we gather news, Podcasting replaces how we record and view our audio, video, radio, TV & movies. We will always need professional writers, artists, musicians, editors to create original content (i.e. books, audio, video, games, databases) – and Podcasting, RSS Feeds & Wikis are simply technologies to locate that content.
We write to preserve our thoughts – it becomes “communication” when someone else reads it. We now have the tools to conveniently create documents collaboratively – allowing us to truly share our collective thoughts. This concept seems easy to understand for people that purchase and download ringtones and MP3s, play MMOGs, seldom watch TV in real-time, and use Instant Messaging more than Email.
For the rest of you: Let’s try not to go “kicking and screaming!”

About blakehandler

BLAKE was a Microsoft MVP and award winning programmer with over 20+ years experience providing complete Windows and networking support for small to medium sized businesses. BLAKE is also Jazz Musician and Instructor for residential clients on the Los Angeles West Side.
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