wikipedia in the times 06.17.2006, 1:56 PM
posted by ben vershbow
Wikipedia is on the front page of the New York Times today, presumably for the first time. The article surveys recent changes to the site's governance structure, most significantly the decision to allow administrators (community leaders nominated by their peers) to freeze edits on controversial pages. These "protection" and "semi-protection" measures have been criticized by some as being against the spirit of Wikipedia, but have generally been embraced as a necessary step in the growth of a collective endeavor that has become increasingly vast and increasingly scrutinized.
Browsing through a few of the protected articles -- pages that have been temporarily frozen to allow time for hot disputes to cool down -- I was totally floored by the complexity of the negotiations that inform the construction of a page on, say, the Moscow Metro. I attempted to penetrate the dense "talk" page for this temporarily frozen article, and it appears that the dispute centered around the arcane question of whether numbers of train lines should be listed to the left of a color-coded route table. Tempers flared and things apparently reached an impasse, so the article was frozen on June 10th by its administrator -- a user by the name of Ezhiki (Russian for hedgehogs), who appears to be taking a break from her editing duties until the 20th (whether it is in connection to the recent metro war is unclear).
Look at Ezhiki's profile page and you'll see a column of her qualifications and ranks stacked neatly like merit badges. Little rotating star .gifs denote awards of distinction bestowed by the Wikipedia community. A row of tiny flag thumbnails at the bottom tells you where in the world Ezhiki has traveled. There's something touching about the page's cub scout aesthetic, and the obvious idealism with which it is infused. Many have criticized Wikipedia for a "hive mind" mentality, but here I see a smart individual with distinct talents (and a level head for conflict management), who has pitched herself into a collective effort for the greater good. And all this obsessive, financially uncompensated striving -- all the heated "edit wars" and "revert wars" -- for the production of something as prosaic as an encyclopedia, a mere doormat on the threshold of real knowledge.
But reworking the doormat is a project of massive proportions, and one that carries great political and social significance. Who should produce these basic knowledge resources and how should the kernel of knowledge be managed? These are the questions that Wikipedia has advanced to the front page of the newspaper of record. The mention of WIkipedia on the front of the Times signifies its crucial place in the cultural moment, and provides much-needed balance to the usual focus in the news on giant commercial players like Google and Microsoft. In a time of uncontrolled media oligopoly and efforts by powerful interests to mould the decentralized structure of the Internet into a more efficient architecture of profit, Wikipedia is using the new technologies to fuel a great humanistic enterprise. Wikipedia has taken the model of open source software and applied it to general knowledge. The addition of a few governance measures only serves to demonstrate the increasing maturity of the project.
Gary Frost on June 17, 2006 11:18 PM:
evolution of Wikipedia
"It blows open what's possible," said Ms. Teachout. "What I hope is that these kinds of things lead to thousands of other experiments like this encyclopedia, which we never imagined could be produced in this way." Zephr Teachout
Watch for a paper edition to validate the communal composition in wide scope, composite reference works. The more frequently this threshold is encountered and crossed, from screen to paper, the more prevalent a pattern of on-line research and publication will become.
Meta has a good synopsis of the options for paper Wikipedia editions.