Wikipedia v. Britannica: This time it’s personal
Get thee over to the Wall Street Journal and read this gloves-off (you know, in a genteel way) debate between Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and Dale Hoiberg, editor-in-chief of Britannica. Here’s a taste:
Mr. Hoiberg: No, we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published. We stand behind our process, based on trained editors and fact-checkers, more than 4,000 experts, and sound writing. Our model works well. Wikipedia is very different, but nothing in their model suggests we should change what we do.
Mr. Wales: Fitting words for an epitaph… …We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet.
Personally, it took me a while to get to the point where I feel a fair level of trust in the quality of Wikipedia. I think Wales has done an excellent job of creating a system that maximizes the benefits of open source collaboration, while minimizing the drawback and dangers of having too much openness. I’m reminded of the brilliant article Clay Shirkey wrote a few years ago, “A Group is it’s own worst enemy“. Shirkey, building off of the concepts expressed by psychologist W.R. Bion in his seminal work,”Experiences in Groups“, wrote,
Group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic [destructive] patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members. (emphasis is mine, pjb)
I remember being struck by Bion’s work when I first read him in a college psych class, but Shirkey really brings it home. Although Shirkey is mostly focusing on social software, the concepts expressed in “Own Worst Enemy” are applicable well beyond that topic, and you might find yourself reflecting on the structure and health of your library (or your Bridge club, or your — um, make that OUR — government). Geek confession: I keep a copy of Shirkey’s article in a “Ponderables” binder on my night table and re-read it regularly.
But I digress. Point is, Wales has done a great job of keeping Wikipedia from being it’s own worst enemy, and I’ve seriously warmed up to Wikipedia as a trusted source.