Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wiki Wiki Wow!

The chart shows the curve of articles submitted to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. When I stumbled over this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the imminent demise of Microsoft's Encarta, I was reminded again of the technology which we people of the Information Age deal with daily. And with no more thought about the miraculous wonder of it all. I don't know for sure, but I think there are a lot more people in the world who were born after the first personal computers hit the market than those who were born before this. So forgive me if I sound like the creaky old dude I'm getting to be.

I'm so old I can remember actually having to go to libraries and use actual printed encyclopedias to ferret out information I can now get in a few seconds or minutes online. And now, even what were once impressive technological advances, like Encarta, are going down.

“The category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed,” [Microsoft] said. “People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.”

Actually, I cannot remember the last time I used Wikipedia, and the reason is I use it all the time. Not as often as Google--that's probably 20 times a day--but at least 3-4 times a week. Let me ask you a question: when's the last time you looked something up on Wikipedia that wasn't there? Unless it happened to you this morning or yesterday, I'll bet you cannot remember a time. I don't think it's ever happened to me.

Anyway, I was about to say that the article in the Chronicle says that Encarta, which was cutting edge 15 years ago, has bascially been killed by Wikipedia. There's a better NY Times piece about this here.

It's no wonder to me. Wikipedia is just one of the miracles we take for granted all the time. Some people decry it as likely to be full on inaccuracies because it's publicly produced. But they are wrong. A number of serious studies and some more impressionistic tests have proven Wikipedia surprisingly accurate. And I can attest to its accuracy and completeness in the little corners of human knowledge I know something about: American history, chess, baseball, and a few other subjects. Academics are still leery of Wikipedia, and I suppose they should be, but let me wonder out loud how likely is it that Wikipedia is going to have an error stand for a long period of time in virutally any area? Not long, I'd argue, what with the number of eyes that are constantly upon it. Even now Wikipedia pieces are more complete normally than your typical encyclopedia article.

Wikipedia is currently debating the question of whether content review of additions by unknown editors should be subjected to accuracy review. This pits the people for accuracy against the people for speed. I vote for the first bunch, but I'm not going stop looking stuff up in Wikipedia while they make up their minds.
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