Is Wikipedia wonderful or awful? I’m going to argue that it’s mostly irrelevant. But first some background…
In the last month and a half there has been a kerfuffle between Tim O’Reilly and Nicholas Carr regarding Wikipedia. It started when O’Reilly posted a very interesting essay in which he laid out his definition for Web 2.0. It’s a long and pretty ambitious document with a lot of good ideas in it. If you’re interested in Web 2.0 it’s an important read.
It’s also kind of amusing because O’Reilly managed to give shout-outs to an incredible number of startups and bloggers. I haven’t seen that much name-dropping since Joan Rivers guest-hosted the Tonight Show.
Anyway, O’Reilly cited Wikipedia as an example of a great Web 2.0 venture. Then another very smart guy, Nicholas Carr, posted an essay called The Amorality of Web 2.0. Carr is positioning himself as kind of a gadfly of the tech industry, and in this essay he called out O’Reilly and a lot of other Web boosters, criticizing the Web 2.0 campaign in general, and specifically citing Wikipedia. He quoted some very bad Wikipedia articles and used them to argue that Web 2.0 enthusiasts are ideologues more than practical business people.
Like O’Reilly’s essay, Carr’s is a very good read, and you should check it out.
Since then I’ve seen both the O’Reilly and Carr essays quoted in a lot of places, usually to either praise or damn Wikipedia, and by extension all wikis. And I think that’s a shame.
To me, Wikipedia is a fun experiment but a fairly uninteresting use of wiki technology. The world already has a number of well-written encyclopedias, and we don’t need to reinvent that particular wheel. Where I think Wikipedia shines is in areas a traditional encyclopedia wouldn’t cover. For example, it’s a great place to find definitions of technical terms.
To me, that’s the central usefulness of a wiki -- it lets people with content expertise capture and share knowledge that hasn’t ever been collected before. By their nature, these wikis are interesting only to narrow groups of enthusiasts. But if you put together enough narrow interests, you’ll eventually have something for almost everyone.
Let me give you three examples:
First, the online documentation for WordPress. As part of my experiment in blogging, I’ve been playing with several different blog tools. I was very nervous about WordPress because it’s freeware, and as a newbie I was worried about accidentally doing something wrong. But when I installed it, and worked through the inevitable snags, I discovered that WordPress has some of the best online documentation I’ve seen. It’s a stunning contrast to for-pay products like Microsoft Frontpage, which unbelievably doesn’t even come with a manual.
Why is the WordPress documentation so thorough? Well, they started with a wiki, and gradually systematized it into an online suite of documents called the WordPress Codex. I found WordPress easier to install and work with than a lot of paid-for programs, and a major reason was the wiki-derived documentation.
Second example: the Pacific Bulb Society. Several years ago a nasty fight broke out on the e-mail discussion list of the International Bulb Society, a traditional old-style group of enthusiast gardeners. It was the sort of interpersonal nastiness that sometimes happens on mail lists. A group of people got so angry that they went off by themselves and founded the Pacific Bulb Society. And they set up a wiki.
In just a few years, the enthusiasts feeding that wiki have created what’s probably the most comprehensive online collection of photos and information about bulbs anywhere. In a lot of ways, it’s better than any reference book.
Third example: the Palm OS Expert Guides, a collection of 50 written guides to Palm OS software. I helped get the Expert Guides going, so I saw this one from the inside. PalmSource didn’t have the budget or vertical market expertise to document the software available for Palm OS, but a group of volunteers agreed to do it. The Expert Guides are not technically a wiki, but the spirit is the same.
Scratch around on the Web and you’ll find volunteer-collected information and databases on all sorts of obscure topics. To me, this is the real strength of the wiki process: enthusiasts collecting information that simply hadn’t been collected before, because it wasn’t economical to do so. As wiki software and other tools improve, this information gets more complete and more accessible all the time.
I think that’s pretty exciting.
In this context, the whole Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia Britannica debate is kind of a sideshow. That’s not where the real action is.
Nichloas Carr does raise a legitimate concern that free content on the Web is going to put paid content providers out of business. But Wikipedia didn’t kill printed encyclopedias -- web search engines did that years ago. And I don’t think free content was the cause of death; the problem was that the encyclopedias weren’t very encyclopedic compared to the avalanche of information available on the Web. And the encyclopedia vendors acted more like carriers than creators. But that’s a subject for a different essay…