The fallout from Larry Sanger's New Year's Eve Kuro5hin article criticizing Wikipedia for its "anti-elitism" trickled into the media last week, which took up the ongoing debate over Wikipedia credibility. Simultaneously, discussions on the Many-to-Many blog over this issue stimulated internal debate there as well as informing the mainstream press.
As the news cycle begins to shift away from coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (including widespread discussion of Wikipedia's article on the subject), media attention on Wikipedia has also shifted, and two publications carried extensive articles that return to the subject of weighing Wikipedia's advantages against credibility concerns. In the Financial Times, John Gapper wrote an article called "A new entrant to the knowledge market[permanent dead link]", which, as suggested by its title, introduces Wikipedia as a new competitor to Encarta and the Encyclopædia Britannica. Meanwhile, The Observer published John Naughton's column entitled "Why encyclopaedic row speaks volumes about the old guard", dealing with the reactions of established reference works like Britannica to Wikipedia's success.
Although it provides an introduction to Wikipedia, Gapper's article is not merely a glowing review. Not surprisingly, given his audience, Gapper presents the competition between encyclopedias in economic terms. In his analysis, "The combination of the internet and Wiki software is a disruptive technology [disruptive to existing competitors, that is]: it allows Wikipedia's enthusiasts to produce something that is extremely cheap (free, in fact) and good enough to satisfy many people."
In his overview, Gapper presents a condensed version of the debate between Wikipedia's founders, Jimmy Wales and Sanger, over the weight, or lack thereof, given to academics editing in their field of expertise. (Kuro5hin founder Rusty Foster's observation on this debate: "Public bickering is the lifeblood of internet-based projects.")
In essence, Gapper assumes the argument of Sanger and others, that Wikipedia does in fact need to "bridge the gap" with the traditional world of academic expertise and peer review. At the same time, he comments on the trickiness of doing this without losing the productive nature of the Wikipedia community.
Gapper also notes that in spite of the Neutral point of view policy, Wikipedia does have biases in its material resulting from the views of its "core group". His example is the McDonald's article, which he says "devotes a lot of space to criticisms by environmental and social activists but says little about how the company originally succeeded." (While there has been renewed activity on the article since Gapper's comment was first published on the web, his point hasn't really been addressed yet.)
Still, Gapper concludes that Wikipedia is "surprisingly good", and says that if used carefully, "it provides a lot of information on a wide variety of topics." If the Wikipedia community is able to compromise with academia, he suggests, it could seriously threaten the future of existing published reference works.
Naughton, while he does not mention Sanger or Wales directly (perhaps preferring not to undermine his portrayal of Wikipedia in terms focusing on group dynamics), does discuss the article by former Encyclopædia Britannica editor Robert McHenry that was probably the most extensive published critique of Wikipedia before Sanger's article. Naughton also quotes directly from comments by Clay Shirky (see below) that were written specifically in response to the Sanger article.
In addition to analyzing the overall debate over the merits of Wikipedia, Naughton can be seen tracing some of Wikipedia's recent press coverage elsewhere. Besides the McHenry article and other previously published quotes from Britannica editors, he mentions the debates over and protection of the George W. Bush article, discussed in several media outlets, and also recaps his own initial article about Wikipedia. He also mentions "a well-known crackpot" writing an article about himself, apparently referring to Sollog.
Naughton consistently evaluates Wikipedia's product as being of good quality, calling even these disputed articles "informative" and "admirably detached". Dismissing the critiques of Wikipedia as having a "whiff of hysteria", he sums up Wikipedia as "an exceedingly useful online reference work often consulted by this columnist and countless others."
On the Many-to-Many blog Archived 2005-12-20 at the Wayback Machine, NYU professor Clay Shirky gave an initial response last Monday to the Sanger article after the news reached Slashdot. While conceding that Sanger was partially right in his criticisms, Shirky said Wikipedia was being given "too little credit" for its efforts in dealing with the problems Sanger complained about. He also argued that while Wikipedia resembles a traditional encyclopedia, its critics fail to recognize that ultimately it has a different nature, much like an automobile differs from a horseless carriage.
The next day his colleague on that blog, danah boyd, took the other side of the debate. Echoing McHenry's observations about Alexander Hamilton being "edited into mediocrity", boyd suggested the quality of collaborative work was overrated: "Wikipedia appears to be a legitimate authority on a vast array of topics for which only one individual has contributed material."
The debate continued as Shirky and boyd exchanged further responses. Later on, Shirky posted a Wikipedia screenshot containing the output of a script he had written, which showed below the title of the article how many times it had been edited, by how many users, and the dates of the first and most recent edits. He suggested that this would give at least some idea of how trustworthy any given article is, and hoped somebody would implement it as a setting on Wikipedia. Whether that happens, we shall have to wait and see.