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Is Wikipedia the greatest invention of mankind? Meh.

2005.08.15 — Culture | Internet | by Roland Grant

School books

It's a world of information... with some pieces missing. [source]

Our intrepid boy publisher Derek Jensen has been active on Wikipedia and sister project Wikimedia for four months now, diligently editing the disorganized thoughts of others there much as he does on this site. He has even written a few articles from scratch, including the one on mini-bars, a subject with which, as a business traveler, he doubtless has enormous experience.

Easy, hoss. I never bought a damn thing from a mini-bar in my life. You know I'm much too cheap. —Ed.

But mostly he's been posting gorgeous travel pics like those you've seen on his postcard pages here. Wikimedia Commons is the project for media like pictures and audio that is available for use by any version of Wikipedia (there are different versions for dozens of languages) or anyone else, for that matter, since all content must be freely licensed.

Wikipedia is the granddaddy.... It's full of great content... and total crap.

Wikimedia is the name of the overall effort and encompasses Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, and the other sister projects, some more developed than others.

Wikipedia is the granddaddy, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. It's full of great content... and total crap. Interested in every person that's appeared on MTV's ode to permanent adolescence, Viva La Bam? How about dozens and dozens of cartoon robots from the Japanese animated adventure series Gundam? Wikipedia is also probably the world's best source for Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Britney Spears information. Sure, you could go to their websites and find out almost as much info, but would Britneyspears.com have the guts to claim that one of her career achievements is that she "returned prominence to the soubrette"?

[W]ould Britneyspears.com have the guts to claim that... she "returned prominence to the soubrette"?

Sure there are lots of science and geography articles on Wikipedia, but for the most part, it's a giant encyclopedia of pop culture. People contribute what they're interested in, and—by definition—most people are interested in what's popular. That's what the World Wide Web is, after all, and since Wikipedia can be edited by anyone, it's about as accurate.

Even if, say, a physicist wanted to contribute, he could just as easily write an article on the final episode of Everybody Loves Raymond as on light-dragging effects. And even if he did write an article on light-dragging effects, he could find it quickly edited by a UFO nut or vandalized by a teenager who has a theory that its cause is that "t3h earth sux." So the classic disciplines of science and literature are given very little attention while hot chicks and Star Wars are given electron microscope examination—just as they are on the Web itself.

But unlike the Web, there are ongoing edit wars and arguments about what belongs and what doesn't belong (well, that happens on Web message boards, just not websites themselves). Should every high school have its own article? How about every elementary school? How about preschools? Oh yeah. And why bother setting up your own website for your garage band when you can just tell people "look us up on Wikipedia"?

And why bother setting up your own website for your garage band when you can just tell people "look us up on Wikipedia"?

Still, as shown by all the links to Wikipedia articles that Tysto itself has, it is a pretty good encyclopedia, at least for the basic, stable, non-controversial stuff. People really try to present a neutral point of view of the subjects and shoot down biased text. It's international (and so US vs UK spelling is a sticking point) and broadly representative, with thousands of contributors.

There's not really any point in quoting it, tho, since most articles are in flux and the text you quoted could be edited tomorrow... or two minutes from now. In fact, it's a bit like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: a link from a popular website to a Wikipedia article will encourage people not only to read but to edit the article, which can change the article so drastically that the original point of the reference is lost.

Wikipedia being what it is, editors have now decided that Farivar is notable enough for Wikipedia partly because of the controversy....

A recent Slate article by Cyrus Farivar, in which he explained how he exposed an Internet hoax about a phenomenon called greenlighting led vindictive users to repeatedly vandalize the Wikipedia entries on him and on greenlighting. It was worsened by the boast he made in the article that he had written his own entry on Wikipedia and encouraged his readers to do the same. This is called a "vanity article," and it's rooted out like cellulite in southern California. Wikipedia being what it is, editors have now decided that Farivar is notable enough for Wikipedia partly because of the controversy and have documented it on his page. Next we may see articles about prolific Wikipedia vandals like the Stop Drinking Soda guy.

And why not? Wikipedia's own founder, Jimmy Wales, suggested that there was no reason that every character on the Simpsons couldn't have an article. Not even the Internet Movie Database contains entries for fictional characters. So, Wikipedia is likely to be doomed by the clutter of minor characters on SpongeBob SquarePants, ridiculous lists of websites that use wiki software, and similar pop culture garbage.

But out of Wikipedia may come some wonderful collaborative software.

Wikipedia will probably never be a great encyclopedia. Only a handful of users vote on most issues, so people will continue rehashing all the same old arguments and controversies in perpetuity without ever really settling anything. Factions will always arise that want certain things done one way and will clash with others who want them done another way.

But out of Wikipedia may come some wonderful collaborative software. Academics and Web nerds alike may find the freely-available wiki software a great way to communicate to perfect position documents, store policy papers, collaborative research, or build up a knowledge base on some subject that isn't Wikipedia material.

Then again, why not put it on Wikipedia? Everything else is. Well, not everything. That's at Everything2.


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