April 15, 2007

Sigh – once again I find myself in the minority of the world. But I guess I should be used to it by now.

Google is good enough for 80% of the people 90% of the time; iPods and mp3 are the future of audio; keyword searching is the way to search the library catalog; Wikipedia is the go-to source for information. Whatever – just keep them away from me. I will, however, thank Google for allowing me to customize my search engine so I can never see hits from Wikipedia (and some others too). Boy, that’s refreshing.

I read the New Yorker article when it came out. At about the same time, The Onion had a piece that was funny despite being so basically accurate (issue 42, no. 30).

I think the public is getting dumber. I don’t claim Wikipedia is a cause of this, it’s just a symptom, and only one of many. Joey read a book for school in 8th grade and for some reason, feels that he should share his newly-acquired knowledge with the world. Joey doesn’t have the wisdom to know that he’s basically ignorant. He just *has* to express himself. In the bad old days, Joey had no outlet. Now he does. Is this an improvement? Now, why on earth would an expert have any interest in contributing or correcting when Joey can “improve” things the next day? I know I don’t have time to get into edit wars with folks. Even a well-written article is fair game for pinhead self-proclaimed editors who feel they need to tweak a sentence or add a paragraph. Two of the most important things about being an editor who oversees a large project are determining what topics will get articles (and which won’t) as well as article length. Wikipedia lacks these things and can’t possibly ever have them. Curt Sachs once said, “A scholarly work, as a work of art, needs integration. And integration is possible only where there is one man, one creative mind.” Something to ponder in the age of everybody-and-nobody-in-charge.

In 1993, I saw how the quality of user-supplied information plummeted when AOL let the unwashed masses onto Usenet (and God, please don’t get me started on webtv). Honestly, it never recovered. Wikipedia never even had a period of higher quality – it started off as a lowest common denominator free-for-all and the talk now of improving it by limiting who can edit, whether people should use fake identities, etc. is simply trying to close the barn door after the horse has gone.

I can easily see the theoretical appeal of Wikipedia – a great way to disseminate and share information that isn’t limited by traditional things like publishing companies; an instantly updateable, always available resource that hooks into the other positive aspects of the Internet. The problem is that this assumes that people are by nature good and intelligent. The best information will rise to the top and drown out the bad. This is *far* too optimistic. If TV has taught me anything, it’s that the public as a whole is not interested in education, intellectualism, or research. Yet they seem to think they should be contributing to an encyclopedia.

In my opinion, the future of quality information on the web will not be on free-for-all sites, but on closely-monitored collaborative projects. These can be *edited* by an *editor* – controlling scope and style, and ensuring consistency so that readers can feel confident that in a large project, the next article will match the previous one. The Wiki technology might very well play a part in creating this, but the “anyone is an editor” concept will not. Just because anyone *can* do something doesn’t mean anyone *should*. A man’s got to know his limitations. An Italian professor friend of mine made this statement, “As long as I say ‘In ancient Greece…’ and am answered ‘My colleagues at Kalamazoo College…’ we are just not on the same page. Mine is several dozen times larger. And I won’t crop it.” Writing (or having the gall to edit) an encyclopedia article requires expertise and perspective (both geographic and historical), and writing skills.

But it seems that quality information is not what the majority desires. They don’t want the right answer, they just want an answer – double quick – and Wikipedia, Google, et al. oblige. Lord, give me refuge from the “wisdom” of crowds.

Michael Fitzgerald

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