Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Wikipedia: Premature Death or Evolution?

Nicholas Carr has pronounced the death of Wikipedia:

"Wikipedia is dead. It died the way the pure products of idealism always do, slowly and quietly and largely in secret, through the corrosive process of compromise.

There was a time when, indeed, anyone could edit anything on Wikipedia.

… A few months ago, in the wake of controversies about the quality and reliability of the free encyclopedia's content, the Wikipedian powers-that-be - its 'administrators' - abandoned the work's founding ideal and began to impose restrictions on editing. In addition to banning some contributors from the site, the administrators adopted an 'official policy' of what they called, in good Orwellian fashion, 'semi-protection' to prevent 'vandals' (also known as people) from messing with their open encyclopedia." (Rough Type)

I must respectfully disagree with Nicholas. This is not the death of Wikipedia; it is the natural evolution of the online encyclopedia. In a sense, evolution is like death. The original species becomes extinct and is replaced by one that is better adapted to the current environment. In human evolution, previous species like Homo habilis and Homo erectus became extinct leading up to the evolution of modern Homo sapiens.

The open source community can be used as an example of how to make online communities function smoothly to produce a high quality product. We can certainly argue that Linux and other open source applications are high quality products that are created by a collection of people online, similar to Wikipedia. However, open source projects rarely (if ever) give access to the source code to anyone who wants to contribute. A smaller group of people have access to commit changes, while newer and less experienced members must submit code to others who review it and make the changes (or not) based on the merits of the contribution. These are commonly accepted practices that have been proven to work over time within open source communities.

As Wikipedia evolves, it is adopting practices that are similar to those used by open source communities. Unregistered users and very new users are not given full access to edit any article; however, after a few days they can earn the right to make changes. Those that abuse the privilege to edit articles by vandalizing pages will no longer be allowed to make changes. This seems like common sense, especially when compared to the commonly accepted practices of open source communities. These practices help to prevent controversial entries from being edited with incorrect or incomplete information in order to protect the integrity of the information in Wikipedia and to preserve the notion that Wikipedia is a reliable and credible source of information.

Most of us would never have an opportunity to contribute to a traditional encyclopedia, so Wikipedia is still very open when compared to other alternatives. In an ideal, utopian world where people always do the right thing, maybe we could have complete openness without restriction. These changes do not mean that Wikipedia is no longer "open". Wikipedia has simply evolved as an online community in order to maintain its survival.

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