Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Encyclopedia un-chained

On March 4, 2004, in a fit of task-avoidance, I discovered a most curious and remarkable cyber-phenomenon, the Wikipedia. In the Wikipedia's own words,

"Wikipedia is a wiki-based free content encyclopedia which includes almanac-like and gazetteer-like information. "Free" means free to use, free to edit, and free to copy and redistribute. Wikipedia is multilingual, and an open-content, collaboratively developed creation, managed and operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. As of March 2004, it contains over 220,000 articles in English, and over 300,000 articles in other languages. "

I was hooked almost instantly! Imagine an encyclopedia where you, the reader and user, can write and edit the articles. You don't need credentials, references, a degree, a brain or anything like that! Sound like a recipe for chaos? Perhaps.

When I mentioned the Wikipedia to my friend the big-university music librarian, I was met with that skeptical librarian scowl. Actually--as I tried to explain to my friend--, it seems to work pretty well, thanks to a team of volunteer wikipedians who manage to keep the cyber-vandals and crackpots at bay, most of the time.

For non-controversial and technical subjects this is fairly straightforward. For example, a week or so ago, somebody decided to have a little fun by inserting subtle and not-so-subtle changes into the entry for calcium. I'm reading along about calcium (don't ask me why), and suddenly I read that calcium is an "alkaline hell metal." 'That's weird,' I think, and then 'Hey, some @$$hole has been tampering with this!'

Sure enough, a vandal had struck. Wikipedia keeps track of all edits, for all to see. A look at the page history revealed the recent destructive edits (done anonymously, of course). Within two days, the true wikipedians were on the case, rescuing an otherwise most informative entry on calcium from ignominy. The hacked version of calcium existed for about 35 hours, all told.

Controversial topics are a little harder to police. You would be surprised at what counts for controversial. There are the obvious political topics (current events, etc.) and then there is the weird shit, like the entry for the supposed Apollo moon landing hoax. This is a pretty fascinating encyclopedia entry, taking in diverse viewpoints. A look at the history page shows a fair amount of battling between partisans on this issue.

What does "wiki" mean? As the wikipedia will tell you, wiki is the term for 'fast' in the Hawaiian language, and refers to the collaborative hypertext editing software that makes the Wikipedia possible.

The phenomenon of the Wikipedia begs for philosophical reflection. It gives a whole new meaning to the notion of the social construction of knowledge, as explicated by Berger and Luckmann and many other sociologists and philosophers over the years. As more and more users participate in the Wikipedia building and editing process, we're bound to see some interesting developments. By a slow process of give and take, a consensus worldview may evolve.

It's also just plain fun, and it's one of the best uses of hypertext I've seen yet. Of course, one can get carried away ...

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