The thing about great ideas is that they have legs -- or maybe, roots. Or seeds. Whatever, pick your metaphor. They begin to sprout all sorts of other great ideas, and pretty soon you have an ecosystem with various mutant forms of the original idea. Take the case of Wikipedia. Perhaps we ought to start with the Encyclopaedia Britannica which was the first (and very successful) attempt to accumulate everything worth knowing about anything at all. This was, perhaps, the Original World-Wide Web -- or at least, English-Speaking-World-Wide-Web. And it held the world in thrall for over a century, providing curious young -- and older -- people with facts about things that once few may have been interested in. Of course, when that happens, more people become interested in many more things; and when many minds attend to the same issue, new perspectives and new ideas emerge.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Encyclopaedia Britannica was compiled, created and vetted by a select panel of designate experts. But one day, the world began to ever faster and faster, due not a little to the dawn of the computing age. More people knew more, generated even more information more often, and pretty soon the Encylopaedia Britannica began to look increasingly dated even on the day each edition came off the press. Then came the World Wide Web and the publishers got the opportunity to provide 'updates' over the web.
Some years back, a man named Jimmy Wales and his friends decided to use an incredibly simple yet powerful technology called the wiki invented by Ward Cunningham to build an encyclopedia on the web created entirely by readers. Pretty soon, Wikipedia began to kick butt and had far many more articles on a more diverse range of subjects than the Encyclopedia could even begin to imagine. Today, when you punch in a key term into that other behemoth, Google, pretty often the first hit that comes up is the corresponding Wikipedia article.
But not everybody is happy with Wikipedia. In fact, in many circles, Wikipedia has become a laughing stock because it is so easy for most anybody to mess with an article an enter deliberately erroneous information. Typically, the sort of crowdsourcing that Wikipedia relies on ensures that somebody, somewhere on earth, will read the article and correct it, often within minutes. But there are always a few egregious cases where an error stands uncorrected indefinitely, to the detriment of both readers as well as the subject(s) of the articles themselves as well as others.
The first rebellion against Mothership Wikipedia began in 2006 with Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger who started Citizendium in an attempt to fix what he felt were Wikipedia's flaws, the biggest of which was the uncertain reliability of information on a Wikipedia site. One major change was to allow only vetted contributors to write articles rather than permit the free-for-all that characterized Wikipedia. Furthermore, nobody is permitted to write anonymously. Thus far, Citizendium has been nowhere as successful as Wikipedia, managing to garner only 11,002 articles. Great idea, but we'll see where this goes.
A second rebellion came from an entirely different direction: the politically conservative movement in the US which believes that the mainstream media has a pervasive and deep-rooted liberal bias and provides no room for conservative views. Wikipedia was painted with the same broad brush. And thus was born Conservapedia. Sadly, Conservapedia reads like a parody of Wikipedia rather than competition, and is often unintentionally hilarious.
There is also a geniune Wikipedia parody called the Uncyclopedia. Oddly enough, some of the articles on Uncylopedia are far more informative than the intendedly serious ones on Conservapedia. Another alternative to Wikipedia with the same goals as Citizendium is Veropedia. Veropedia sources information from Wikipedia and then tries to clean it up, contributing the result back to Wikipedia. Since it is much smaller than Wikipedia, internet users may first look up a term in Veropedia, and if it is not found there, then visit Wikipedia for a possible unvetted article.
There is a very specialized wiki-type encyclopedia called Scholarpedia. Articles are written by invitation-only, by known experts in specific scholarly fields. Scholarpedia works more like a conventional encyclopedia except that it leverages currently available technologies.
Much to my astonishment, the list of online encylopedias is huge. All credit to Ward Cunningham for his brilliant insight and work on the wiki (which means 'quick' in Hawai'ian). It is, indeed. What is also fascinating is how various encyclopedias reference each other, forming a self-sustaining cloud of information.