February 26th 2005

The new know-it-all

by Wynn Quon

It's as if a gang of hardy Amish barn-raisers ended up erecting the tallest skyscraper in the world. That about describes the phenomenal success of Wikipedia, the free Internet encyclopedia. In the four years since its birth, Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) has become the world's largest reference work. With over 1.3 million articles in two hundred languages it easily dwarfs the Encyclopedia Britannica (120,000 articles in its online version), Encarta (70,000 articles) and a dozen other rivals. Not only that but Wikipedia is setting a blistering pace with a thousand new articles being added each day.

Its success has attracted harsh criticism from predictable quarters. In an article published recently on TechCentralStation.com, Robert McHenry, former Editor-in-Chief of Encyclopedia Britannica disdainfully said that using Wikipedia was like visiting a public restroom.

McHenry's vain attempt to turn up the heat is ironic because it's the oldfangled encyclopedia publishers who are on the hot seat. Wikipedia will put many of them in deep trouble within the next five years. Internet users have been voting with their clicks. Traffic to Wikipedia's forty-nine servers on any given day exceeds 80 million hits. Wikipedia articles are cited increasingly by mainstream newspapers and magazines. Encyclopedia publishers have been lambasting Wikipedia's reliability but their outrage has blinded them to a sea-change in their core market: The way that people research and learn in the Internet age is vastly different than it was only a decade ago and if they fail to adapt, they will suffer.

How did Wikipedia get started? Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's founder, began with a simple yet counterintuitive idea: create an open encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to. (The name Wikipedia comes from the "wiki" collaborative software that powers the website). A few canny rules-of-order were added: Whenever someone edits an article, a new version of the article is created and saved. This is important because Wikipedia is an open-source project. Such projects are fuelled by the prestige and social standing derived by the contributors from the work that they do. Your contribution to an article, no matter how small is kept for posterity and clearly identified as such. The continual creation of new versions also discourages anti-social behavior -- vandalized articles can be easily reverted. Each article also has a separate discussion page where authors can discuss their changes and air their differences. To reduce bias, Wikipedia's policy is to present a neutral point of view that fairly represents all sides.

The effect of these simple rules has been extraordinary. (Doctoral students in sociology looking for good thesis material take note). Wikipedia's first article was written in January 2001. With word-of-net and favorable press coverage, ten thousand articles were added within nine months. That number grew tenfold by 2003 and tenfold yet again last year. Despite meteoric growth, Wikipedia has remained an all-volunteer outfit, financed by donations. Over thirty thousand people have written or edited articles so far. Holding it all together is a hardcore group of two thousand Wikipedians who make more than a hundred article edits per month.

What of the critics? McHenry's distaste for Wikipedia goes back to first principles. He and others charge that it will never have the authority of a "proper" encyclopedia. While an old-style encyclopedia has a minimum standard of grammar, readability and fact-checking, Wikipedia has none. Wikipedians answer that although articles vary greatly in quality, they improve over time as contributors hone, polish and edit. Although it bothers traditionalists, the fact is a lack of standards doesn't prohibit excellence. Read for example Wikipedia's article on the Indian Ocean Tsunami disaster (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Ocean_Tsunami). It includes animations, geological information, figures on the international relief effort and a plethora of external links to government geological websites as well as to videos and photographs of the catastrophe. It is without question the best, most up-to-date description of the event available anywhere.

In the old way of doing things editorial standards were imposed on an encyclopedia's contributors from the top down. The new kid on the block has turned the model on its head. Instead of an enforced standard, Wikipedia issues a challenge - what can you (yes, you) do to make an article better? The question that critics are obsessed with, namely "How good are the articles in Wikipedia?" is a red herring. It is as meaningless as asking "How good are the webpages on the Web?". Wikipedia is a completely new concept in knowledge aggregation. Comparing Wikipedia to Britannica is like comparing a forest to a rock garden. Organic vs inorganic. Yet old-school encyclopedists insist on evaluating Wikipedia using their dated paradigms. Prominent in McHenry's public attack on Wikipedia for example, was the latter's article on U.S. president, Alexander Hamilton. The article wasn't up to scratch, McHenry said, because some of the dates were off by a few years. In his eyes, this is enough to dismiss Wikipedia as a serious reference source. He missed the crucial point: There is no connection between the quality of the Hamilton article and the other articles of Wikipedia. Each has its own history, its own set of contributors. If anything, McHenry unwittingly pointed out the strength of the Wikipedia model. Two days after his critique appeared, the Hamilton article was cleaned up and the errors removed. This is a feat that no traditional encyclopedia can match. (A 12-year-old schoolboy made headlines recently after finding several errors in the Britannica. These mistakes will remain uncorrected until the next release of the encyclopedia, whenever that will be).

McHenry's criticism harkens back to a time when people did their research in musty libraries. When information was hard to come by, an authoritative encyclopedia was valuable because it saved you time and money. But now in the Internet age, you research a topic not by getting the final word from a single source, but by using a multitude of sources. You do this because the Net makes it easy. Googling takes just seconds. But anyone who's tried googling a broad topic quickly runs into a frustrating problem. You end up with an overwhelming number of links, some of questionable relevance. This is where Wikipedia comes in. Wikipedia complements Google by providing a framework of understanding, a quick overview of the subject. Its articles often provide a list of relevant links to websites for further reference. If a date in a Wikipedia article is off by a few years it is not an issue. The researcher knows that Wikipedia has no guarantee of accuracy so she will cross-check any critical pieces of information with other sources. Wikipedia is an essential because it provides a starting point, an explorer's map to new territory rather than a faultless gazeteer.

The bad news for the traditional encyclopedists is that this turf used to be theirs. There are three reasons why they've lost ground so quickly. One big factor is that Wikipedia remains free. Traditional encyclopedias require an online subscription (US$70/year for Britannica) or an expensive hardcopy purchase.

Another factor is that in a growing list of subjects particularly in science, pop culture and current events, Wikipedia beats the traditional encyclopedias hands down. Articles range from the ordinary to the playfully obscure. Want a quick plot summary of the X-files TV series? A discussion of the mathematical Ackermann function or the cold-fusion controversy? Wikipedia's got it. A discourse on the use of the umlaut in heavy-metal band names? Only in Wikipedia.

The third and perhaps the most challenging factor, is what we can call the "leaching effect" (although traditional encyclopedia publishers might spell it differently). The expert who writes for the Encyclopedia Britannica has probably spent decades studying her subject. She may have spent months crafting a definitive article. But after it's done, it takes only a few hours for an educated layperson to use that article along with other sources to come up with an adequate Wikipedia entry. The leaching effect means that Wikipedia won't be the clueless newbie that critics like to portray it as. Let's do the math. Assuming four hours per article and a three-hour work day, two thousand hardcore Wikipedians could paraphrase Britannica's entire content in eighty days. Before the days of the Internet this entire dynamic would have been unthinkable.

Are traditional encyclopedia publishers aware of Wikipedia's threat? Here's a clue: Try looking for the "Wikipedia" article in the online version of Britannica. You won't find it. Nor will you find it in any of the half a dozen or so mainstream encyclopedias currently on the market. These folks should be busy brainstorming a survival strategy. Instead the range of reaction has run in a comically limited range from denial to derision. Even Britannica with its prestigious reputation needs to figure out how it will thrive in what will increasingly be a Wikipedia world. In the final analysis, Wikipedia is more than just the raising of a new barn. It's the tearing down of the old ones.

Wynn Quon is chief investment analyst at Legado Associates (e-mail).