Monday, December 05, 2005

Wikipedia: Suck or Rule?

For those not in the know, is now officially the world's largest encyclopedia, offering nearly a million articles, all written and edited by volunteers. In fact, anyone (maybe you?) who happens to click onto their pages can edit or change them (without registering). This of course, has great potential to let blossom a million flowers of nerdiness, but it also crucially relies on the good faith (and competence) of the volunteer corps.

Recently they've decided to clamp down on unrestricted editing of articles, after a bio of John Seigenthaler (a former aide to Robert Kennedy) was edited to insinuate he might have been involved in the assassinations of both Kennedys. Oops. Mr. Seigenthaler was understandably upset and consequently ripped them a new one in a USA Today Op-Ed piece. Still, abuse like this seems difficult to control, given the nature of wikipedia. In my mind, the controversy is a another round in the struggle between free speech and (occasionally legitimate) state control over speech. No magic bullets here.

On the subject of wikipedia's general quality, one friend of mine likes to refer to the site as "decision making by a committee of twenty idiots". I don't quite agree: I like the fact that the site tends to have reasonably good articles on topics you can't get elsewhere. So it's not really a competition between "good" and "better", but rather between "good" and "nothing". The few times I've looked at subjects I do research on and know a fair bit about (gamma-ray bursts, HETE-2, astronomy) I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of detail. No obvious mistakes, good external links. Sure, some of the articles could be longer and more interesting, and there is a fair bit of stating the obvious, but for the most part way more informative than the string of generic news articles you would get from a google search. A good first start, which is what an encyclopedia should be.

Of course, gamma-ray astronomy is a fairly non-controversial backwater. I could easily put in a few hours of editing and improving the afore-mentioned pages (a better option than complaining about them) and be fairly certain that someone won't come along and undo everything. The same couldn't be said for articles on "aliens", "George W. Bush" or "Kennedy assassination", I guess.

So I'm curious. Do other people use wikipedia? Do you trust the stuff you find?

1 comment:

bugs said...

Hmmm...I don't use it much, but I checked out a couple of articles, including one on politics of Iraq. Lots of detailed info that would probably be hard to find elsewhere, but an extremely strong slant towards the official U.S. version of events.

My not-very-informed opinion is that Wikipedia seems to be pretty good on verifiable facts (names, dates, places, laws, etc.) but not very good on analysis, context, generalizations, causality, and so forth.