Wikipedia: It's impossible, but works

Did this interview with Intelligence Magazine on Wikipedia… If you want to see the full interview buy the magazine…

Intelligence Mag: How valuable do you consider Wikipedia as a reference source?

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Me: I think Wikipedia is a valuable reference source, but that readers should be on guard when they use Wikipedia material. I would use Wikipedia as a starting point for gathering information on topics, and then move on to other reference sources. I would always use wikipedia in tandem with more traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica.

– Do you use Wikipedia?

Yes, I use Wikipedia as an occasional reference source.

– What is your take on the quality of the information provided?

For me the idea of wikipedia is utopian, yet it does appear to be working. Or maybe it isn’t working because it has yet to stand the true test, which is the test of time? As more high-profile inaccuracies or acts of vandalism start appearing on wikipedia over the years, like we have seen recently, maybe the tide will turn on the project and public opinion will turn. Maybe it will be innacurate information used from wikipedia that will lead to a high-profile blunder or calamity? Maybe Wikipedia will shut its doors to the public and further retreat behind registration? But maybe none of this will happen and the project will succeed, get stronger and be the seemingly-utopian realisation of collective collaboration? Anecdotally, from my own limited experience, I have not come across a problem with the quality of the information, however I think the model has weaknesses and is open to abuse.

– As an working professional, do you feel Wikipedia is a strong enough reference?

I regularly use wikipedia as a source in my blog or when writing articles on certain subjects. For research and strategy proposals or if I need very technical information, I generally look elsewhere. I find Wikipedia a good starting point for gathering information, but then move onto other reference sources.

– How important is it (academically) for a reference to come from a knowledgeable and professional source, i.e. journals?

It depends on what you use that information for. If its for an academic paper I think it is imperative that the source is from reputable, knowledgable person who is an expert in his or her field. The problem with wikipedia is you don’t really know who is behind those edits.

– In the age of technology, is Encyclopedia Britannica obsolete?

I think Encyclopedia Britannica is far from obselete, but I do think they need to overhaul their online presence. This is where wikipedia is beating Britannica hands down. Wikipedia has a much more sophisticated web presence. But the fact that wikipedia is stronger online is not a statement about the respective content of the encyclopedias.

I think there is value in the traditional publisher model such as Britannica. I think Britannica should embrace citizen media: allow users to comments and write their own entries similar to wikipedia, but they should always keep the original entry written by qualified experts in their field, sacrosanct — and that would be the difference with wikipedia.

I have never believed citizen media will “replace” traditional media models. Organised, corporate structures with incentives (such as salaries) produce quality and get the best out of human beings. It’s worked for centuries. But also in the citizen media sphere: the pressure of social ties, idea of doing good and maintaining a reputation is also powerful in promoting quality. These are not necessarily competing models and I think both could work in tandem. Perhaps the citizen media model still has to stand the test of time however.

– What do you think the benefits of Wikipedia are?

Wikipedia is fast and web friendly and generally more up-to-date than print encyclopedias. It has a large selection of entries. It embraces user participation and community, and is transparent in the way changes are made to entries.

And the cons (when compared to a more formal print dictionary/encyclopedia)

A major difference between Wikipedia and publications like Britannica is that publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood and reputations depend on it. With Wikipedia’s largely anonymous reader base there doesn’t appear to be that same pressure. I’ve met with Jimmy Wales in person and chatted about this: his counter argument to this is that the pressure of social ties, idea of doing good and maintaining a reputation is also powerful in promoting quality of content. Wales also says that the community is self-regulating. For example if there is false or erroneous information on Wikipedia, it will be corrected by the collective community. But my question is: what happens in between the time Wikipedia carries that false informatin and the time it takes for the community to correct it? Do readers just unwittingly pick up false information from wikipedia?

– Unlike an encyclopedia, online collective references are almost topic dependant – one is more likely to research something in the IT field than a medical issue for example. What does this say about validity?

I think Wikipedia is strong on certain topics and weak on others and this is a reflection of the demographics of its community. For example, it is very strong on technical and computer topics, but weak on topics like child care.

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