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Wiki v. Britannica
October 24, 2005 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Wikipedia v. Encyclopædia Britannica. Wikipedia is a much loved resource on the internets, but often comes under criticism regarding its accuracy. In this article (The Faith-Based Encyclopedia) the criticism comes from a former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Turn about is fair play. Just the facts ma'am. [via Found on the Web]
posted by caddis (77 comments total)

 
I have been one of the critics, but I love this use of the Wiki. It exploits the weakness of the entrenched Britannica, using the strengths of the Wiki to produce a public good. I am still more likely to trust Britannica on a given issue, but now we have an army of fact checkers to boot.
posted by caddis at 8:44 AM on October 24, 2005


I think that being able to read the discussions section on any wiki page gives me a pretty clear view of whether or not to trust the page. Besides..... i can quick search wikipedia by typing wp in the address bar of firefox followed by my search querry. Britannica couldn't PAY for that kind of integration.
posted by sourbrew at 8:49 AM on October 24, 2005


Isn't this super old? TCS says the article was published in november of 2004. That's 11 months ago.
posted by delmoi at 8:53 AM on October 24, 2005


That McHenry article reads like a crazy bookstore owner's rant against libraries.

"Free? Good? Wide breadth of data? Balderdash! You can't just give books away!"
posted by waldo at 8:54 AM on October 24, 2005


Wasn't a large portion of the early Wikipedia based on an out-of-copyright version of the EB?
posted by gwint at 8:54 AM on October 24, 2005


Ah, the Essay was old, but the errors in britanica, that bit's new (or new to me, at least)

Heh.
posted by delmoi at 8:55 AM on October 24, 2005


This interesting. His main point being that the Encyclopedia Britannica editors have more authority on a given subject than the mass of the whole. He then uses the example of the Hamilton article to nitpick the discrepancy in birthdates. Indeed there is some confusion over the dates that Wikipedia now explains:

There is some uncertainty as to the year of Hamilton's birth. Throughout his life, Hamilton stated that it was 1757, and that year went unquestioned for centuries. More recent examinations of probate court records at St. Croix indicate the year was 1755 (though the year is not explicitly noted) and for several decades it has been the more commonly cited year. The date, January 11, can be neither substantiated nor refuted, and is still commonly accepted.

Look Wikipedia corrected itself, and we can see discussion over it in the "discussion" tab! When was the last time you were able to sit down with Encyclopedia Britannica editors and listen in on why they chose to present the facts the way they did.

His other issue seemed to be the terrible structure and voice in parts of the article. This is a minor quibble, over time as users come along they can change it to be more eloquent. Was he expecting a perfect draft right out of the gates?

McHenry seems to miss the point. I don't care about whether 40,300 or 40,200 people were killed on one day. I don't care of x died in 1932 or 1933 -- that's largely academic. I use Wikipedia for general interest. If I wanted to research a topic I'd go to primary sources or more authoritative sources.

Wikipedia is great at what it does. If I had a complaint it would be the current trend to report on ongoing events in Wikipedia, something I think should only be done after the fact to reduce bias. That said, overtime it should correct itself.

Let's give Wikipedia 20 years and see how it looks before judging it.
posted by geoff. at 8:56 AM on October 24, 2005


The Guardian had a thing today where they got a few people to fact-check Wikipedia on their areas of expertise.

Tells us pretty much what we knew though. Generally the facts there are accurate; but it tends to have large gaps, a terrible prose style and a lack of context.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:57 AM on October 24, 2005


Robert McHenry is out of a Charles Dickens novel threatening people who want to "learn on their own" with a cane lashing.

The excellent rebutal to that article: The FUD Based Encyclopedia.
posted by stbalbach at 9:01 AM on October 24, 2005


The Britannica editor brings up some interesting points.

I was rather pleased with my article on psychogenic seizures; it explains why we don't call them pseudoseizures anymore, because they're not produced under false pretenses and the patients don't produce them voluntarily.

Yesterday, 3 sentences below that paragraph, someone inserted a paragraph about using prolactin levels "to distinguish pseudoseizures from bona fide seizures."

I also notice that the ostensibly non-profit Wikipedia is being used to make money for people who run Answers.com. The way this works appears to be that the Wikipedia was (intentionally?) set up with a pretty crappy front end. If I were doing this, I'd have made this part non-profit, and created a nominally separate for-profit company to do the front end.

The fact that my free work is making money for someone else gives me a bit of pause.

You! Yeah, you, with the bad-faith seizures! Out of my clinic!
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:05 AM on October 24, 2005


The whole Wikipedia thing fascinates me... It's amazing the way a quasi-religion seems to be forming among the regular contributors - and already it has its own schism, the eventualists versus the exclusionists...
posted by runkelfinker at 9:07 AM on October 24, 2005


Ye Olde Appeal to Authority.
posted by odinsdream at 9:10 AM on October 24, 2005


There's a bit of a backlash against wikipedia going on; I compiled some links about that and a little analysis:
Wikipedia has a structural contradiction (or perhaps a fine line to walk). In order for people to care enough to put in high quality edits, they have to feel like they're contributing to a grand encyclopedic project; but it's also helpful if people don't think of the site as an exact equivalent of paper encyclopedias -- they have to critically examine articles, figure out possible reasons they read the way they do.

This is one reason it's so important for there to be more (and better) software interfaces to wikipedia: there's a sea of information to sift through that helps you figure out what's really going on, how much you can trust an article, etc., and it would be nice to take it in at a glance.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:11 AM on October 24, 2005


That McHenry article reads like a crazy bookstore owner's rant against libraries.

I don't mean to be rude, but this reply seems so generic I doubt you actually read the entire article.

It's amazing to me that people who are, in other areas, sensitive to the dangers of groupthink believe (passionately, in some cases) that mass editing will tend towards perfection rather than incoherence.

Just having "an army of fact checkers" guarantees nothing, especially when the enrollment requirements in this "army" consist of having access to the internet.
posted by argybarg at 9:14 AM on October 24, 2005


I also notice that the ostensibly non-profit Wikipedia is being used to make money for people who run Answers.com. The way this works appears to be that the Wikipedia was (intentionally?) set up with a pretty crappy front end. If I were doing this, I'd have made this part non-profit, and created a nominally separate for-profit company to do the front end.

Answers.com and a lot of other sites. The content on Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons license, and can be used by anyone, for any purpose. Wikipedia itself dosn't get any money from those sites, as far as I know.
posted by delmoi at 9:14 AM on October 24, 2005


I wonder if any of the experts in TE's Guardian article went in and fixed the errors they found...
posted by Leon at 9:14 AM on October 24, 2005




Instead of bitching about the Hamilton article, he could have opened an account and fixed it. But then that would have killed the whole point of his diatribe.
posted by octothorpe at 9:16 AM on October 24, 2005


runkelfinker: There are plenty of wikipedia factions with conflicting philosophies about the project, but I wouldn't call any of them religions.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:16 AM on October 24, 2005


I always thought of the wikipedia project as something akin to using cutting lasers to make early hominid tools.

Who needs an encyclopedia these days? McHenry's argument seems to my ears to be "Our privately-built chariot works a lot better than your chariot built by public committee." Maybe so, but nobody needs a chariot anymore.
posted by Cassford at 9:18 AM on October 24, 2005


Cassford: what would you propose instaid? I would rather use a laser cut knife to prepare food then a laser cutter itself.
posted by delmoi at 9:21 AM on October 24, 2005


delmoi, I was trying to make the point that there is no need for an encyclopedia now that we have the World Wide Web and powerful Web search engines. Encyclopedias made sense when many people did not have easy access to information locked away in often-distant libraries. The Web has made the need for all-encomcompassing encyclopedias much less necessary. What can wikipedia tell me that a Google search cannot?

Said differently, sure, you like laser-cut knives, but how about a laser-cut pointy-ass rock when you could have a nice stainless steel knife instead?
posted by Cassford at 9:30 AM on October 24, 2005


Wikipedia doesn't try to sell me the items in question, putting it a big step above a Google search.
posted by smackfu at 9:32 AM on October 24, 2005


The Web has made the need for all-encomcompassing encyclopedias much less necessary. What can wikipedia tell me that a Google search cannot?

The web is crap. At least with wikipedia you have some editorial oversight (by a huge group of peers) on the web in general, there is no way to find out if a spesific article is correct or misleading.
posted by delmoi at 9:34 AM on October 24, 2005


Wikipedia is only 4 years old. We forget this is a 100+ year project. It's on the same scale as Britannica (200+ years) and Oxford English Dictionary (150+ years) . Indeed even larger. Wikipedia will evolve not only in linear content quantity and quality, but in method and process. If you read the history of the OED, most of its early years people thought the project would never survive.
posted by stbalbach at 9:37 AM on October 24, 2005


Cassford-
I think you're wrong, actually. The articles that I've contributed to the most (mainly biographies of authors) have been about things that were missing good, concise but reasonably detailed information on the internet. I know because I looked around first. An encyclopedia (and the wikipedia) exists between, say, a biography and a cursory fansite that repeats the same 5 facts that are available everywhere via Google.
posted by OmieWise at 9:38 AM on October 24, 2005


So, Wikipedia is rubbish because *one* disputed (if we take his word for it) point has passed without comment. Do you think it occurred to him to change the article in question?

Besides that, most of the things he listed as weaknesses I see as Wikipedia's strengths as an alternative to print resources.
posted by nthdegx at 9:47 AM on October 24, 2005


As for the Guardian article, while it was better, they asked experts in specific fields to rate articles on subject matter they knew about. They could take any resource written by someone other than themselves, and the things they'd notice first would be the things they disagree with. It seems glaringly obvious to me that if you want to evaluate Wikipedia as a resource, then you should take impartial scholars to compare articles with other enyclopaedic publications. I suspect Wikipedia might score poorly in most areas (but much better in certain contemporary fields) but at least it presents itself as a work-in-progress. It doesn't seemed to have occurred to any of these people to dip in and change the articles they take issue with; therbey ignoring Wikipedia's primary strength.
posted by nthdegx at 10:04 AM on October 24, 2005


I'm a great fan of wikipedia but I don't easily jump on board the wikipedia-is-the-answer-fantastic bandwagon. It all depends on what page you land on. As with everything in life a healthy skepticism assists to judge each entry on its merits. Sometimes it has scholarly articles, sometimes (very often) it provides links to 'source' material faster than google. So I use it freely and rely upon it sometimes. I've added the odd link and fixed up glaring typos or grammar points a few times. But I think merely trashing it is unhelpful.

But it doesn't replace print world. It is another net assistant is all.
posted by peacay at 10:05 AM on October 24, 2005


He needs a copy of The Wisdom of Crowds.
posted by VulcanMike at 10:10 AM on October 24, 2005


This sort of reminds me of the Andrew Gilligan/BBC/WMD debacle. He lost his job because his story - a live radio broadcast on a breaking news story (prone to error if ever there was any) - was shown to contain factual inaccuracy. I think if you exposed any media outlet to that level of scrutiny you'd expose serious shortcomings. In both cases, the analysis comes from people on the back foot. In the WMD case it was the government; in this case it's a competing resource, the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I'd like to have some experts take a swing at some of the Guardian's op-eds from the last twelve months and see how well they fair. This is the newspaper I'd choose to buy, but I suspect they'd come out of the exercise facing plenty of criticism.
posted by nthdegx at 10:10 AM on October 24, 2005


It's amazing to me that people who are, in other areas, sensitive to the dangers of groupthink believe (passionately, in some cases) that mass editing will tend towards perfection rather than incoherence.

Just having "an army of fact checkers" guarantees nothing, especially when the enrollment requirements in this "army" consist of having access to the internet.


Argybarg: groupthink is more likely to occur in Brittanica than the WP. Read James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds": in some cases a group of "experts", being too similar in opinion and experience, is more likely to come to an incorrect consensus than disparate contributors with a good method of aggregating their knowledge.
posted by mediaddict at 10:10 AM on October 24, 2005


Wikipedia's not perfect, but it's quite useful. I think that's the proper conclusion to make, here...

If you're doing proper research, Wikipedia should not be the single source for any of your information. Neither should EB.
posted by chasing at 10:13 AM on October 24, 2005


gwint: "Wasn't a large portion of the early Wikipedia based on an out-of-copyright version of the EB?"

In a sense. Yes, the now-public-domain 1911 EB was used as source material way back when. But only a couple thousand articles are still listed as using that encyclopedia as a primary source.
posted by Plutor at 10:18 AM on October 24, 2005


Cassford writes "The Web has made the need for all-encomcompassing encyclopedias much less necessary. What can wikipedia tell me that a Google search cannot?"

I'm hard-pressed to think of any website, apart from Google itself, that has made the web more valuable to me personally. While I would never consider Wikipedia an authoritative source on anything, I use it daily to get the gist of many topics - that obscure philosopher I never heard of, the deputy under-secretary of whatever in the Carter administration, the history of goatse, a physics term, etc. To learn what I did from one Wikipedia search, I'd have possibly spent hours doing Google searches and probably have a similar level of confidence in the veracity of the information.
posted by mullacc at 10:20 AM on October 24, 2005


People who create software to sell at a profit spend a lot of time and energy insisting that people who create software to give away for free are making sub-par software.

People who create encyclopedias to sell at a profit spend a lot of time and energy insisting that people who create encyclopedias to give away for free are making sub-par encyclopedias.

Presumably, this also applies to any other undertaking where the final product can be manufactured with negligible costs, and where some people are trying to make a profit while others are trying to be altruistic.

So no real story here, is there?
posted by davejay at 10:26 AM on October 24, 2005


I will be impressed by Britannica when you can look up the Chewbacca Defense in it.
posted by drezdn at 10:33 AM on October 24, 2005


Wikipedia will eat itself.
posted by runkelfinker at 10:39 AM on October 24, 2005


Chewbacca Defense
posted by johnnyfive at 10:41 AM on October 24, 2005


"I was trying to make the point that there is no need for an encyclopedia now that we have the World Wide Web and powerful Web search engines."
HA! "Teh Un1t3d St8x0rz wuz cr8ed n 1492..."
Ask any librarian what they think of reliance on web searches for accurate information. There are incredible biases (primarily those of contemporarism), and drastic flaws that are evidenced mostly in what you can find through the use of a library versus the holes in an online search.
The reason why wikipedia, to me, is less authoritative than EB is because wiki often has articles that present novel and poorly sourced information that is based more on some grad student's current gender theory than on the slow sifting of information. Wikipedia does some things well, and I use it often as a casual reference or in order to point me to more relevant sources, but EB has an order of magnitude more authority.
posted by klangklangston at 10:44 AM on October 24, 2005


I found that during the Katrina Hurricane wikipedia was the best up to date resource out there. I could read about the history of leveees and Louisiana, keep up to date with the destruction and it had all the live news feeds and regional maps and graphs. If you checked back 4 times a day, it was always changing. It's a great news source where you can learn the history as well.
posted by chohoh at 10:57 AM on October 24, 2005


[ mark as best answer ]
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:08 AM on October 24, 2005


nthdegx : "t seems glaringly obvious to me that if you want to evaluate Wikipedia as a resource, then you should take impartial scholars to compare articles with other enyclopaedic publications. I suspect Wikipedia might score poorly in most areas (but much better in certain contemporary fields) but at least it presents itself as a work-in-progress."

Look here.
posted by Gyan at 11:13 AM on October 24, 2005


Ikkyu2: The fact that my free work is making money for someone else gives me a bit of pause

It shouldn't, really. Would the content be really free if it was mpossible to use it in a commercial context?
posted by Harald74 at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2005


{{npov}}
posted by Citizen Premier at 11:14 AM on October 24, 2005


Matthew White has some trenchant criticisms of Wikipedia.

Personally, I find Wikipedia useful because it's like a better-organized version of the web. Information about any particular topic that's been scattered across multiple websites is now collected in a single place. But it's not easy to tell when an article contains bogus information.
posted by russilwvong at 11:40 AM on October 24, 2005


Thank you, Gyan.
posted by nthdegx at 11:51 AM on October 24, 2005


I wonder what Wikipedia is doing to the livelihoods of encyclopedia salesmen?
posted by alumshubby at 12:35 PM on October 24, 2005


The argument that the Brittanica is inherently superior to Wikipedia because it is written by experts seems to be beside the point, since an encylopedia is not generally read by experts, it is read by laymen who want to get an overview of an unfamiliar topic or a quick fact. Wikipedia is great for that purpose, and the error rate will steadily drop over time. (I tend to think the wiki model works because people who are energetic and creative enough to write good articles are more persistent and intelligent than the vandals. It's hard to prove that, but the results are very impressive given the age of the project).

And Wikipedia contains information about popular culture that would never make it into the Brittanica.

So I think these elitist anti-Wikipedia rants are essentially sour grapes from the Brittanica editors who realize that within a decade or so, Wikipedia is going to obsolete their pile of dead trees.
posted by snoktruix at 12:36 PM on October 24, 2005


and the error rate will steadily drop over time.

Does the error rate need to drop? As long as the rate doesn't explode, I'm happy.
posted by Chuckles at 12:50 PM on October 24, 2005


This is an old article, no? It cites statistics from November 2004.

I've been contributing daily for almost a year, and I would certainly never consider the Wikipedia to be more authoritative than the Britannica. Authority is orthogonal -- perhaps contradictory -- to the spirit of Wikipedia. Anyone suggesting that the Wikipedia is claiming higher authority than Britannica is arguing on false premises.

Wikipedia is, on the other hand, much more useful than Britannica ever will or even potentially could be, precisely because it is a real-time collaborative effort. On one level Wikipedia is a perfect example of a "good enough" solution that could drive out many other solutions with much closer claim to perfection. But it goes much farther than that.

I would be very critical myself of a student who wrote a paper citing Wikipedia, but at the same time I would still contribute myself and encourage my students to contribute. I think there's actually much more to get out of editing articles than just reading them. It's a very enlightening experience in and of itself.

Finally, please don't call Wikipedia "the Wiki". There are thousands of wikis. There is only one Wikipedia.

Answers.com and a lot of other sites. The content on Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons license, and can be used by anyone, for any purpose. Wikipedia itself dosn't get any money from those sites, as far as I know.

It isn't Creative Commons at all, it's the GFDL.

The GFDL differs from the CC licenses in its requirement that the licensed work be distributed in a form which is "transparent," i.e., not in a proprietary and/or confidential format.

This is what permits Answers.com and many other sites you'll undoubtedly find through Google to republish Wikipedia content, with attribution.
posted by dhartung at 12:59 PM on October 24, 2005


See also Larry Sanger's Wikipedia article and user page, and something he's working on now.
posted by tangerine at 1:03 PM on October 24, 2005


Cassford: People obviously DO find it an invaluable resource, otherwise it wouldn't be so widely popular and we probably wouldn't be talking about it here. Wikipedia, for many many topics, is a much better resource than a random google search.
posted by sophist at 1:28 PM on October 24, 2005


Cassford, I'm baffled by your question "What can wikipedia tell me that a Google search cannot?"

Topics I've looked up in the past week: Betacam tape sizes, why people sometimes say "Mastercharge" instead of Mastercard, and various background info on tinnitus. All these subjects would take at least a modicum of google-fu to find any page as comprehensive as those on Wikipedia. With WP, I punch in a word and I'm done. That sounds like a chariot that's got a few rides left in it.

Quick results on the history of credit card companies turn up articles written by "a successful internet entrepreneur and author whose websites provide moneysaving and credit management advice for consumers purchasing a variety of consumer financial products such as airline rewards credit cards and travel rewards credit cards.", and "the webmaster of the credit card comparison sites http://www.credit-cards-superbollocks.com/ and also http://www.creditcards121bollocks.com/", just the guys I trust to give an impartial account. Besides the objectivity factor (which is a weak argument, these guys could edit articles too), searching for anything Mastercard, Credit card, etc.. is a heaping pile of craptastic search results. homonyms like "flash" that are technology oriented are also difficult to search, but fairly easy to pin down on Wikipedia with the disambiguation pages, which often provide more specific terms to search for, or external links.

Links defaced.. just 'cause.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 1:35 PM on October 24, 2005


Uncyclopedia on EB.
posted by superfem at 1:47 PM on October 24, 2005


Dhartung, that was a great explanation of the value of the Wikipedia, the best I have heard.

As for the article, it is just an example of the type of criticism which the Wikipedia faces and it sets the stage for the main link.
posted by caddis at 1:49 PM on October 24, 2005


Just having "an army of fact checkers" guarantees nothing, especially when the enrollment requirements in this "army" consist of having access to the internet.

I trust that army, because it's not just an army of people with internet access. It's an army of specifically the sort of people who will put in personal time to edit an encyclopedia and get nothing in return for it. These people are called geeks. Geeks know stuff. Geeks are also a widely diverse bunch, and tend to care about detail.

Britannica and its ilk are not respected because they are without error. They are respected because they make the kinds of errors - mostly omissions - that certain types of influential people have decided they are comfortable with. I will take selfless populism over elitism any day.

That said, Wikipedia is not a primary source. But often the hardest part of research is not looking, but figuring out where to look and what to look out for. And Wikipedia is a wonderful way to get a sense of where one should start looking when they do a google search or *gasp* go to the library.
posted by poweredbybeard at 2:01 PM on October 24, 2005


Wikipedia entry for Robert McHenry.
posted by linux at 2:17 PM on October 24, 2005


Instead of bitching about the Hamilton article, he could have opened an account and fixed it. But then that would have killed the whole point of his diatribe.

I don't see how. His point wasn't that a single article was significantly broken. His point was that the average reader has no idea precisely how many such articles have this kind of factual inaccuracy, and therefore Wikipedia is somewhat dubious as a reliable source of information.

I don't see how his fixing one article would have killed that point at all.


People who create software to sell at a profit spend a lot of time and energy insisting that people who create software to give away for free are making sub-par software.


*Shrug*

And other people insist that free software is invariably of equal quality. Despite having used Linux since 1995 or so, I don't believe I'll be trading Photoshop for The Gimp, or Cubase for Rosegarden any time in the near future.

For some purposes, good enough is just that -- good enough. For others though, I want the best that I can possibly get. If that means using proprietary software, then that's a price I'm going to have to pay.

Ye Olde Appeal to Authority.

Not *always* a bad thing.

God forbid we ever reach a day when Wiki medical journals come to replace the peer-reviewed variety...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2005


I spent a fair amount of time writing up a Wikipedia article about a forgotten author of the '30s because there was nothing about him on the web and I happened to have a Dictionary of Literary Biography that covered him (and yes, I cited it as a reference). Next time I visited, some fucker had deleted the article. I'm sure there was some arcane reason from the Wiki Cabal Rulebook, but it sure didn't encourage me to bother trying to contribute further.
posted by languagehat at 3:07 PM on October 24, 2005


These people are called geeks. Geeks know stuff. Geeks are also a widely diverse bunch, and tend to care about detail.

Yes, but geeks also like to think they know stuff as well. There definitely has been cases wherein people that clearly didn't know what they were talking about wrote entire articles. Usually minor, less popular, not-oft-searched for types of articles, but that's the type of article that you might sift through the Wikipedia for; the obscure and the contemporary.

And geeks are also (typically) horribly opinionated. What's worse Wikipedia is often used as a soapbox. Witness the Bill Gates article until very recently. If Jimmy Wales hadn't said anything, would anything ever been done about it? You may make the argument that a glance at the Wikipedia Talk section for an article can outline both sides of an argument, but how often do people go there, unless the article is specifically marked "disputed." Or even then for that matter?

I love Wikipedia, but scenarios like the above definitely make it less credible, even as a "starting point" for research.
posted by Tikirific at 3:27 PM on October 24, 2005


As with many here, I'm in the "Wikipedia is pretty good, but be aware of its limitations and use it with caution" camp. I use Wikipedia daily, and find it quite useful for general background on a subject.

Yes, first and foremost, one must be aware of the potential for error in Wikipedia. Wikipedia fanatics like to point out that there are errors in Britannica too, but that's hardly the end of the story. You can't just say, "well, Britannica has errors, Wikipedia has errors, so that's a wash." I daresay Wikipedia has orders of magnitude more errors than Britannica. Some like to point out that a 12-year-old found five errors in EB in a matter of days. I haven't tried, but I bet I could find five errors in Wikipedia within fifteen minutes (without introducing them myself, natch).

I'm not so certain that errors are quickly caught, in general, as Wikipedia fanatics like to claim. Some are, to be sure, but I've found those that aren't either. I've found and corrected one error that persisted in an article for over three years--and not a little-seen article, but one which had received almost daily edits. A thousand or so edits, and no one had caught the error. Now, that's just one case, and I don't know how common things like that are--perhaps it's incredibly uncommon--but it's enough to give me pause.

I've found some other errors that were in Wikipedia for a few months before I corrected them. When people first learn of Wikipedia, they often express concern about malicious and/or agenda-driven individuals who may edit pages to promote their own biases; I think that those sorts of errors are in fact quickly fixed. It's the more subtle, non-controversial errors, those that serve no one's agenda and get into Wikipedia simply because the editor is mistaken, that are often overlooked, I think.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:02 PM on October 24, 2005


languagehat: One person cannot delete an article, that can only happen through a consensus vote. A published author is certainly notable enough to be included by any measure, especially with citations. Are you certain the article wasn't simply vandalized?

See your e-mail ...
posted by dhartung at 4:06 PM on October 24, 2005


To paraphrase, though it has many omissions and
contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate,
it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important
respects.

First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has no less than four entries for "Don't Panic."
posted by pokeydonut at 8:53 PM on October 24, 2005


The content on Wikipedia is licensed under the Creative Commons license, and can be used by anyone, for any purpose. Wikipedia itself dosn't get any money from those sites, as far as I know.

Briefly, today, there was a link at the very top of the Wikipedia Main Page - above the content, just below the toolbar for logged-in users - that stated that the Wikipedia Board of Trustees had agreed to an advertising deal with answers.com. That's no longer up there, but it linked to a brief explanatory page.

As I say, if I were trying to profit from the contributions of 30,000 unpaid volunteers, I'd open-source the content with a crappy front end, then charge for the front end that made the content actually usable.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:23 PM on October 24, 2005


It's fine with me if other folks want to spend their time writing for wikipedia or going there first to answer their questions. I happen to think both are a waste of my time.

A general google search is usually sufficient for me to get the kind of unauthoritative smattering that wikipedia is said to provide. BTW, I've read The Wisdom of Crowds and the much earlier Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds and I found the latter more enlightening than the former.
posted by Cassford at 9:34 PM on October 24, 2005


Cassford: Please link to this magical "google" of which you speak.
posted by mullacc at 9:37 PM on October 24, 2005


I think a lot of people are setting up a Straw Man with Wikipedia. Does everyone here bashing it also think Ask MeFi is a travesty? Probably not. You probably also don't take any of the answers posted there as gospel truth. Wikipedia is not the alpha and omega of internet research. It is yet another way to help make it quicker and more effective, and for that I welcome it. I don't rely on it - I use it in conjunction with resources like Google and MeFi (and some high-falutin book-lookin too). This is just basic good practice - the same way I wouldn't rely on one news source for my news.

I think most people are actually quite aware of WP's limitations. I wish everyone harping about WP's flaws would spend a little more time on the flaws and errors of established media, which are a bit more pressing, since WP isn't trying to dominate any discourse, while many of them were created for just that purpose.

And languagehat - you can restore articles pretty easily. The history is saved quite a ways back.
posted by poweredbybeard at 9:43 PM on October 24, 2005


For the record, I think AskMeFi is swell. And I think poweredbybeard is right about "the established media." But I think many people who create wikipedia entries are trying, in their own small way, to dominate discourse on a subject matter.
posted by Cassford at 10:02 PM on October 24, 2005


I absolutely love how, anytime Wikipedia is criticized, its acolytes respond, "Instead of complaining, why don't you log in and fix it?"

Wikipedia isn't an encyclopedia. It's a community of losers who call themselves "Wikipedians," who erect a ridiculous and self-parodizing bureaucracy, who use the site as a stomping ground to fulfill a sense of authority they'll never achieve elsewhere. Its value lies only in the articles that are too obscure to escape their attention, and the quality of those rarely rises above a good post on Usenet.

20 years isn't going to change any of that.
posted by cribcage at 10:06 PM on October 24, 2005


No its value lies in being a freely available and generally very useful approximation to an encyclopedia. That Wikipedia has advanced to its current state (which is impressive despite your bullshit) in 5 years is an indication that it is likely to continue to advance and improve for many more years.
In 10 years let's come back and talk about what happened. But then of course you won't want to because Wikipedia or its descendent will be widely used and praised, and you'll have moved onto other things to misanthropically bitch about.
posted by snoktruix at 11:49 PM on October 24, 2005


I'm with Dhartung. Wikipedia is just great for casual answers. And a useful starting point for external links. Saves getting 10,000+ hits from Google with no consolidation.

If I'm serious about something I'll use Wikipedia, Google and (horror) dead tree references. You want absolute certainty? Death and taxes.
posted by ozjohn at 3:43 AM on October 25, 2005


It looks as if Wikipedia needs editors and releases.

Let the rabble write (perhaps by filling in outlines from editors), but then freeze all general input for an upcoming release and let the editors (a group of people who may know little about a given subject but who can write and who aren't trying to grind axes) fix what the writers have done and then release the thing. People who want now more than good could always browse the beta release, but people who want good more than now could browse an official release.

Something like that, anyway.
posted by pracowity at 7:40 AM on October 25, 2005


Embarrassed retraction: dhartung very kindly e-mailed me to inform me that my article (on William McFee) was in fact still there. (I swear it wasn't when I looked for it, though) So I guess I'll continue to amend and create articles when I feel the urge.
posted by languagehat at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2005


Wikipedia search is case-sensitive, which can be annoying. It's possible you forgot to capitalize the Fee when you searched the second time.
posted by Tlogmer at 10:15 AM on October 25, 2005


pokeydonut nailed my thoughts exactly. This is the Hitchiker's Guide waiting to happen.

Sure it's probably inaccurate in a lot of ways, but how many of you have a full set of encyclopedias at home these days in the first place? Arguing that it will never be as good as the commercial project just because it's done by amateurs and anyone can contribute... well, I'm using Firefox, and it's the same deal, in a way (barring what pracowity said about releases).
posted by caution live frogs at 10:23 AM on October 25, 2005


how many of you have a full set of encyclopedias at home these days in the first place?

I do, actually. I've got the full text of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD. I paid the princely sum of C$40 at my local computer store a few years ago. According to Froogle, you too can own the complete text of Britannica for the low, low price of $12.95.
posted by russilwvong at 1:02 PM on October 25, 2005


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