Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wikipedia vindicates the wisdom of crowds

Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. So, how about 200? Or 2,000? Or maybe 2 million?

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia is an experiment based on the premise that there is more wisdom to be found in crowds than among a few experts. Created in 2001 by Huntsville native Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia allows anyone to create and edit entries on a vast array of topics, many of which other encyclopedias ignore.

For instance, you can find entries on the Greek poet Homer, his epic poem of the Trojan War, “The Iliad,” and the latest archaeological finds at the site of the historical Troy. You can also find entries on the 2004 film “Troy” starring Brad Pitt and “Age of Bronze,” a comic-book retelling of the Troy legend.

As you might guess, given the proclivities of many of the Internet’s most computer-savvy users, Wikipedia entries devoted to subjects like “Star Trek” can be every bit if not more detailed than entries about George Washington or quantum physics.

But that is one of Wikipedia’s charms. Where else can the uninitiated learn about Capt. Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn at Cestus III? (If that seems like gibberish, you can always look up “Gorn” at Wikipedia.) Encyclopaedia Britannica can cover only so much. But no topic is too insignificant for Wikipedia.

Not that I’m saying “Star Trek” is insignificant.

Wikipedia, however, has had its share of controversy. Because anyone can edit Wikipedia articles, often anonymously, some entries fall prey to vandalism.

Vandalism can appear as racist, sexist or libelous comments. It can also appear as just plain nonsense. And sometimes people get caught editing their own entries, a kind of stealth public relations.

At the more innocent end of the spectrum, sometimes people editing Wikipedia entries unintentionally insert information that is simply incorrect.

Wikipedia’s critics, often in academia, cite such episodes as proof Wikipedia is not to be trusted. But actually Wikipedia’s vast network of users comprise a pretty good editorial staff, weeding out vandalism almost as soon as it appears and quickly correcting the occasional errors of fact. They’re so effective, Wales says, that overall Wikipedia is almost as accurate as print encyclopedias, which experts take years to compile.

A study published in the journal Nature found that the average Wikipedia article contained four errors, compared to three in a typical Encyclopaedia Britannica article.

The difference, of course, is that Wikipedia errors can be corrected immediately. Britannica errors remain “fact” until the next edition rolls off the presses.

Also, Wikipedia has the benefit of other Web sites that help monitor its content.

Another Alabama native, Virgil Griffith of Mobile, developed Wikipedia Scanner, which helps track who is editing what articles. He was inspired by news reports about politicians whitewashing their own entries.

Wikipedia is now one of the Internet’s most popular sites, and it’s an indispensable first stop for people researching just about any topic. That’s a good vote of confidence, no matter what the experts say; they’re just protecting what was once their exclusive turf.

It’s also vindication for the idea that order can arise spontaneously from disorder. Without any central authority behind them, Wikipedia users police themselves, correct themselves and continue to expand Wikipedia’s scope.

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