Last Monday, an essay critical of Wikipedia prompted Jimmy Wales to raise the issue of how to improve the quality of writing in Wikipedia articles, conceding that there were significant problems in some areas.
The essay in question was posted by business journalist and author Nicholas Carr on his blog 3 October. Its focus was actually on the Web 2.0 concept, and Carr gave it the title, "The amorality of Web 2.0". His reflections were prompted by media coverage leading up to this past week's Web 2.0 Conference, and the idealistic notions of people like conference organizer Tim O'Reilly. Carr argued that although the technology behind the Web is fundamentally amoral, the glowing rhetoric around it is creating a quasi-religious fervor and contributing to the "cult of the amateur".
As an example of this phenomenon, Carr turned to Wikipedia, saying, "If you read anything about Web 2.0, you'll inevitably find praise heaped upon Wikipedia as a glorious manifestation of 'the age of participation.'" His own assessment: "In reality, though, Wikipedia isn't very good at all." To support this, he quoted passages from the articles on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda that he described as "an incoherent hodgepodge of dubious factoids", adding that these were representative of much of Wikipedia's content.
Wales observed that while he generally disagreed with Carr's argument, the Fonda and Gates articles "are, quite frankly, a horrific embarassment." He opened a mailing list discussion exploring how this type of situation can develop and what could be done to correct it. This prompted a variety of responses: Stan Shebs commented that some well-meaning contributors make edits that, while not vandalism, aren't improvements either, and this sometimes causes articles to deteriorate over time; Charles Matthews highlighted the point that Wikipedia's policies for fostering more professional writing focus on factual disputes (neutral point of view, no original research, and citing sources) rather than "style crimes".
The discussion broadened to cover the challenges of producing featured articles (see related story). One observation made was that it seems easier to develop a quality article about an esoteric subject than a general one. Wales also clarified that his goal is for Wikipedia to be better than the Encyclopædia Britannica, period, and that being free is not a justification for inferior quality.
On Thursday, Carr followed up his original post by quoting a message from David Gerard, which conceded much of Carr's criticism but arguing, "if we want a good encyclopedia in ten years, it's going to have to be a good Wikipedia." Carr closed by saying, "as I feel we're mainly in agreement, I'll leave it there."