I recently listened to an interview with author David Weinberger. When asked to name what he thinks confirms his vision of a new system of knowledge from the last ten years, he immediately named Wikipedia, saying "it's dramatic proof that things we thought were not possible are possible."
The Encyclopedia Britannica curated its articles and had them written by experts. Total articles: 100 000.
Wikipedia took the same approach, initially. In their first year: 16 articles. They threw out that model and started doing what they do now. Total articles: 3.8 million. In English. And counting.
The significance of this, as Weinberger puts it: "Control doesn't scale." If you want control of an organization, it can only get so big, and you'll need a rigid hierarchy in place that can be maintained, and each member will have little or no autonomy.
But… "when you don't scale control, when you allow disorganized groups to form and organize themselves in useful ways, you can do things at a scale you couldn't believe, you'd never have believed before. Such as 3.8 million articles in an encyclopedia."
Another important point: Wiki's articles are all hyperlinked. We take this for granted, because so much on the internet is hyperlinked. But compare Britannica's article on philosophy. 180 000 words. Wiki's: 9000. Short (by comparison - long for wikipedia, long for the internet), unless you follow the hyperlinks, which come at you at least once a sentence, and quite often every few words. This approach allows the inclusion of items such as "faith," which some would argue isn't part of philosophy, others would. No need to settle that debate. Let the reader follow the link if she cares to and decide for herself.
"So the nature of topics and thus of expertise," Weinberger says, "and thus how we see ideas go together, all fundamentally changed. Everything about how we built knowledge in reliable ways - undone in Wikipedia. Every aspect of it is undone, as if on purpose."
And a few thoughts of mine on the significance of Wikipedia:
Anyone can participate. At least some readers will accept the challenge and opportunity and morph from spectators into participants. You won't get paid, you won't get famous, you won't get writing gigs. But people are doing it anyway. Because contrary to what our me first system would have us believe, it feels good contribute to something that benefits everyone.
Every entry concludes with a list of hyperlinked sources and references. Encyclopedia Britannica certainly provided notes and references somewhere, don't they? I actually have no idea. Britannica seems the ultimate reference. Look no further. We know all. We are the ENCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA!! Wiki says look it up for yourself, if you'd care to. If we're wrong, correct us. You're a part of this, if you'd like to be.
When a citation is needed on a given point in an article, it's immediately acknowledged. Wiki's open about its gaps. Transparency - important word in the digital age. This also acts as a further invitation to participate.
With so many articles, more of them are likely to hit close to home. Your city, your favourite writer, an obscure fictional character, an unfamiliar term, an abstract concept, a washed-up celebrity you barely remember and assumed no one else did either. It's probably there. The world includes more than just New York City, the 100 Years War, Reptiles and Sedimentary Rock. Your immediate environment, your niche interests, they're all part of reality. They're all worth noting.
And finally, it's free. It's good to donate to it, too. Helps keep it without ads.