The Wikipedia model — unicorn or camel?

by Mathew on May 1, 2006 · 2 comments

It’s not really ironic — unless you use the broad Alanis Morrissette definition of that word — but it’s at least an interesting coincidence that just a day or two after Nick Carr lamented the fact that the Web is powered by numbskulls, someone would write what I think is an excellent overview of why the Wikipedia approach to synthesizing knowledge is a worthwhile one to pursue, despite the potential for being overrun by Mr. Carr’s numbskulls. And it’s an even more interesting coincidence that the writer in question happens to work for the same newspaper I do, the Globe and Mail.

I don’t like to write about the Globe here on my personal blog, because it’s inevitably going to be seen as navel-gazing and/or pimping for the boss, but I do make exceptions — especially when it’s about Web 2.0 and social media and that sort of thing. In this case, I think the paper’s recent editorial on the topic of Wikipedia was damn good, and I would have linked to it if someone else wrote it, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t just because it appeared in the Globe.

What’s even more impressive is that it comes from the editorial board, which many see (rightly or wrongly) as the last bastion of conservative (small “c”) thought about such newfangled gizmos as the Internet, Web 2.0, wikis and so forth. And yes, I realize that it’s also somewhat ironic that the editorial I’m linking to is behind the pay wall, but hey — everyone is trying to find their way in this new media world, and different models are being experimented with, for better or worse. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Here’s a taste of what the editorial says:

A camel is a horse designed by a committee. That old saw nicely expresses the skepticism most of us feel about collaborative thinking. We have far more respect for the individual genius — Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein — who thinks great thoughts in splendid isolation. But the rise of the Internet and the brainstorming it enables should make us rethink that old prejudice. “Are many minds better than a few?” suggested a recent headline in the Economist. Quite possibly, yes.

It goes on to give a capsule history of the Wikipedia, and what it attempts to do, as well as some of the controversies that have arisen, including the Siegenthaler affair. And then it states:

The Wikipedia model is not perfect, but its success has implications that go far beyond how people conduct research. It puts a question mark over the whole idea that information must move from credentialed producer to passive consumer. That presents established companies and organizations with a big challenge.

That is the point, in a nutshell — a point that the Globe’s editorial writers link more or less explicitly to the concept of democracy itself, just as I did in a response to Seth Finkelstein on my recent “numbskulls” post (see below). As Winston Churchill once said, democracy is the worst form of government — except, of course, for all the others.

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