the day wikipedia obsoleted itself

Remember how, in 2006 and 2007 there was a lot of debate over wikipedia's accuracy and process, and people though about creating alternate encyclopedias that relied on "expert contributors?" And then, somehow, that just died off and we never hear about those kinds of projects and of concerns anymore? The biggest news regarding wikipedia recently has been with regards to a somewhat subtle change in their licensing terms, which is really sort of minor and not even particularly interesting even for people who are into licensing stuff.

Here's a theory:

Wikipedia reached a point in the last couple of years where it became clear that it was as accurate as any encyclopedia had ever been before. Sure there are places where it's "wrong," and sure, as wikipedians have long argued, wikipedia is ideally suited to fix textual problems in a quick and blindingly efficient manner, but The Encyclopedia Britannica has always had factual inaccuracies, and has always reflected a particular... editorial perspective, and in light of its competition wikipedia has always been a bit better.

Practically, where wikipedia was once an example of "the great things that technology can enable," the moment when it leap frogged other encyclopedias was the moment that it became functionally irrelevant.

I'm not saying that wikipedia is bad and that you shouldn't read it, but rather that even if Wikipedia is the best encyclopedia in the world it is still an encyclopedia, and the project of encyclopedias is flawed, and in many ways runs counter to the great potential for collaborative work on the Internet.

My gripe with encyclopedias is largely epistemological:

  • I think the project of collecting all knowledge in a single

    fact that the biggest problem in the area of "knowing" in the contemporary world isn't simply finding information, or even finding trusted information, but rather what to do with knowledge when you do find it. Teaching people how to search for information is easy. Teaching people the critical thinking skills necessary for figuring out if a source is trustworthy takes some time, but it's not terribly complicated (and encyclopedias do a pretty poor job of this in the global sense, even if their major goal in the specific sense is to convey trust in the specific sense.) At the same time, teaching people to take information and do something awesome with it is incredibly difficult.

  • Knowledge is multiple and comes from multiple perspectives, and is contextually dependent on history, on cultural contexts, on sources, and on ideological concerns, so the project of collecting all knowledge in a value-neutral way from an objective perspective provides a disservice to the knowledge project. This is the weak spot in all encyclopedias regardless of their editorial process or medium. Encyclopedias are, by definition, imperialist projects.

  • The Internet is inherently decentralized. That's how it's designed, and all though this rounds counter to conventional thought in information management, information on the Internet works best when we don't try to artificially centralize it, and arguably, that's what wikipedia does: it collects and centralizes information in one easy to access and easy to search place. So while wikipedia isn't bad, there are a lot of things that one could do with wikis, with the Internet, that could foster distributed information projects and work with the strengths of the Internet rather than against them. Wikis are great for collaborative editing, and there are a lot of possibilities in the form, but so much depends on what you do with it.

So I guess the obvious questions here are:

  • What's next?
  • What does the post-wikipedia world look like?
  • How do we provide usable indexes for information that let people find content of value in a decentralized format, and preferably in a federated way that doesn't rely on Google Search?

Onward and Upward!

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