What do you think of Wikipedia today? Time to hear it from Wikipedia's co-founders, Jimmy 'Jimbo' Wales and Larry Sanger. Or depending on which part of Wikipedia you choose to believe, Wikipedia's founder and ... well, some other guy.
Sanger was editing the Nupedia project, which grew into Wikipedia, before leaving in 2002, wishing the project the best. Earlier this year, he announced his latest venture, Digital Universe, which seeks to develop Wikipedia's networked model but using domain experts. Adopting this approach, he hopes, will avoid the site becoming the world's graffitti board for the unemployed, the retired and teenagers - Wikipedia's fate. The "some other guy" reference http://www.theregister.com/2005/12/06/wikipedia_bio/page2.html
stems from Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales editing his very own Wikipedia entry to remove the co-credits from Sanger.
The last six months haven't been kind to Wikipedia. Not only has the project lost some of its most respected contributors, but some of its proudest supporters have cooled on it, too. The experience of Jorn Barger, who coined the term 'weblog', is a parable. A year ago he was one of the keenest enthusiasts. But he first gave up trying to contribute to his area of expertise (his research on James Joyce is professionally respected), and then gave up trying to defend his own biography from youthful doubters. Now he's given up on Wikipedia.
What's left is a decaying biomass of misinformation, and often stupendously accurate fan trivia, but you have to know your subject to spot it. Documentary film maker Jason Scott has the wittiest exposition on why, in the form of a 45-minute talk. You can find it in multiple formats at Archive.org, here. Jason's comments on MetaFilter are also worth reading. Scott isn't, and never has been a Wikipedia administrator - he's a computer historian. But his fleeting brush with the site gave him a common guy's insight into this labyrinthine pseudo-democracy.
Today, with entropy in the ascendant, the press no longer asks "How does Wikipedia work so well?", but, "How did anyone ever expect it to work?" (Droll example)
Even Wales himself seems to be looking to the future, and last month his own private venture Wikia received a $4m injection of venture capital. Wikia will go forth and teach businesses and groups how to use Wikis, Wales told us.
But let's turn to Sanger first, as we haven't had the opportunity to talk to him since the January announcement of Digital Universe.
Sanger diplomatically thinks there's room for both his venture and Wikipedia.
"I remain on good terms with Wikipedia and Wikipedians. Wikipedia can occupy the niche it occupies, and the world is richer for it occupying that niche."
But Digital Universe pays experts who can write - and that's three big differences already. And the goal is different, too -
"Wikipedia is devoted to making it possible for everyone to contribute on an equal footing to an encyclopedia. Digital Universe is devoted to creating an ideal information resource – it's what we’re aiming at."
"While we do want to open the project up very wide, the range of is controlled by domain experts.
So did Larry think Wikipedia's fate was an inevitable consequence of an open model? He put more emphasis on the sociological composition of the editors.
"It's really that the skills to marshal an argument, and represent the facts correctly are all skills encouraged by a solid liberal arts education. It's a problem associated more with a lack of training in the liberal arts."
It's true, he agrees, that Wikipedia articles "shift back and forth between an entry someone crafted, and a stitched together Frankenstein's monster."
As for what he's previously called Wikipedia's anti elitism, Sanger is careful:
"There was a time in the first nine months in which there was still current a general policy of some amount at least of deference to experts. That was a policy I personally encouraged. I believe it fell by the wayside to a certain extent."
"I don’t mean to accuse Wikipedians in general of being disrespectful of experts because, in fact, I do think most Wikipedians still are respectful of subject area experts. The majority are very reasonable people, and that needs to be said.
"It's a relatively few, difficult to deal with people that cause the problems, and once a quorum of such people were at work on the Wikipedia system, it became more and more difficult to defend an edit by pulling rank, by claiming a special expertise.
"There really was a time when that sort of behavior was tolerated, and it really isn’t tolerated so well anymore."
With Digital Universe, he wants to take the utopian enthusiasm and channel it to a system that respects expertise.
"What makes people enthusiastic about contributing to Wikipedia is not that anyone can participate, it's that it's easy for the people who do to participate, and that they get instant feedback from in the community," he says. "Those features that make Wikipedia compelling can be replicated in a system that is managed by experts. The whole idea is to teach experts the Wikipedia magic."
Contributors will be credited he says, right down to the copy editors.
"If anyone ought to know that systems need to be adapted it needs to be me. That's what we did with Wikipedia in the first place – we adapted the wiki software to the task of writing an encyclopedia. The result was a very nonstandard wiki."
"What remains the same in Digital Universe from Wikipedia is hopefully going to be enough to work."
And so, to Jimbo.