Pity Wikipedia, embedded in a paradox. The do-it-yourself encyclopedia, whose entries are authored and edited by self-appointed experts, has been the center of a couple of disputes that will cause people to lose a little faith in its ability to capture the much-heralded Wisdom of the Masses.
- First, a former assistant to Robert Kennedy wrote an op/ed piece in USA Today about the difficulty he had removing an article that raised unfounded claims that he was involved in the assassinations of Robert and John Kennedy, and his inability to trace the anonymous author of the information.
- Then, VJ-turned-podcaster Adam Curry was in hot water after supposedly editing out references to other people’s early work in podcasting in an article about the history of podcasting.
Both cases arose because of the impossibility of Wikipedia’s challenge to ensure the accuracy of its content. Wikipedia is supposed to be self-regulating – the very nature of wiki technology is that anyone can submit content, but anyone can also go in and edit and correct inaccurate content. It’s not working so well on this scale.
The problem for Wikipedia is that it is trying to stuff a new and valid idea into an old box. The new idea is that technology has made the marketplace of ideas a little more free, and that free markets have self-correcting mechanisms for discrediting and getting rid of bad information. The old box is the idea that you can collect all knowledge into one place and turn that place into a useful information environment. In the old days, the big boxes of information (such as encyclopedias, newspapers, and publishing houses) were run by people who imposed a single set of editorial controls. They often published inaccuracies, to be sure, but you knew whom to blame. Now, when there are plenty of authorities all about us, why do we still have the urge to roll all those little voices into one big package? We’ve noted the same phenomenon with blogs – there are lots of folks finding ways to aggregate the blogs of the world, but there are no barriers to new voices coming along and setting up shop outside the aggregation, so why bother?
Better a thousand focused wikis than one big wiki with a thousand topics. The paradox is that as soon as the Wisdom of the Masses is put into the box and given a brand name, it becomes an old-fashioned authoritative source in the eyes of its users, subject to all the failures of the old authorities.