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Friday, November 16, 2012

My opinion of Wikipedia from a decade ago: Intrigued but dubious

My column in next Monday's Telegraph will touch on Wikipedia, which made me wonder when I wrote about the topic. Here's what I found: a column from Feb. 12, 2003, almost a decade ago, when Wikipedia was tiny and unknown.

I thought you might find it amusing, especially my prediction that Wikipedia "will fizzle in the long run":

Blame it on waiting for phone calls to be returned, the bane of a reporter's life.

I was sitting at my desk, twiddling my thumbs, when I decided to twiddle my Web browser instead.

Big mistake.

I soon stumbled across Wikipedia, and now I'm hooked. I've become an information-is-free addict, and I'll tell you more as soon as I finish updating the Wikipedia entry on Holman Stadium.

There, that's done - although in the process I found no entry for the Atlantic League, so I'll have to create that in a minute - and I don't even like baseball! What am I going to do once I get to something exciting, such as non-Euclidian geometry?

The cause of all this dismay is a do-it-yourself Web encyclopedia, of all things.

In essence, the 2-year-old Wikipedia is a searchable database: a bunch of articles gathered together into a massive Web site using software called Wiki (from the Hawaiian word for "quick").

You go to the Web site (www.Wikipedia.org), type a word or phrase into the search engine and get a list of one or two or 100 - or, often, zero - articles for your perusal.

The cool thing is that the articles (104,000 as of early February) are written by volunteers, including a half-dozen written by me. Unlike places that require official sanction before volunteers can write, such as About.com or Nupedia (from which Wikipedia was spawned), this place is come one, come all. Anyone can create and write anything.

Go to the Web site and in about three minutes you can create an article, too. (Obviously local folks have: When I first arrived, there was already an entry for the Nashua Pride.)

Be careful, though, because it's addictive. Once you start making related sites, there's always another that's needed. Nashua Telegraph leads to Nashua Pride leads to Atlantic League leads to Holman Stadium leads to Don Newcombe . . . leads to getting fired because you haven't done any work this week.

Before that happens, though, let us consider the weirdness of Wikipedia.

An encyclopedia is, by its nature, elitist. An encyclopedia written by the unwashed masses is highly counterintuitive.

That is what Wikipedia means when it says "open source": All of its words are up for grabs, and anybody can do whatever they want with them.

What this means in real life is that the next time I'm feeling bored and malicious, I could open the Wikipedia article on Blaise Pascal and change him from a 17th-century polymath to a Paleozoic invertebrate.

Since there's little value in an encyclopedia that thinks Pascal is a trilobite, this vulnerability seems to render Wikipedia useless as a resource. But its creators argue the opposite.

They say the open-source ability to change each other's words - instead of merely responding to them, as in online forums - is Wikipedia's strength.

"We operate on the idea that many eyeballs make all errors shallow," says the site's FAQ.

More than 700 people are registered with Wikipedia so far (just me from New Hampshire, last time I checked), and hundreds more are involved. With such a crowd of watchers, its fans argue, all stupidity, bias, fraud and confusion will be spotted and corrected.

Or so goes the hypothesis.

"Wikipedia is, self-consciously, an experiment in public collaboration," admits the FAQ. "Therefore it will be difficult to project the results, in terms of their credibility, until the project is farther along."

Which is the real Wikipedia lure. It's a wacky idea that was impossible before the Web, and nobody knows whether it's going to work.

Such a spirit of "what-the-heck, give-it-a-shot" prevailed online until about 1996, when dot-com wealth soured everybody. Stumbling across it again is a real shot of nostalgic pleasure, even if (as I suspect) Wikipedia will fizzle in the long run.

In the meantime, though, I just realized there's no entry for my favorite naturalist/author, Gerald Durrell - which will also require making an entry for his zoo, and his books, and his famous brother, and his brother's books, and . . .