Wikipedia has some serious goals: to not just emulate, but surpass the most respected print encyclopedias while maintaining its open, free philosophy. The way it works is simple: it started by publishing the contents of an existing encyclopedia, the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Then it allowed users to edit any article or add an article themselves. What ensued was not pandemonium but instead a systematic expansion of the encyclopedia to encompass a staggering array of topics. Contributors even corrected errors from the 1911 Brittanica. They developed systems to deal with “vandals,” famously tested by Alex Halavais.
Still, questions remain. How “serious” can an encyclopedia with an 8 page article on The Simpsons be? (It doesn’t end there, either. There’s also a 13-page catalog of characters from The Simpsons, and separate entries for each major character)
On the other hand, Wikipedia also has serious, factual articles on traditional encyclopedia topics, such as that bane of the 11th grade American history test, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. Whether the articles discuss Bilbo Baggins or East Timor, Wikipedia retains that same neutral, encyclopedic tone.
So is the quirkiness of Wikipedia simply a harmless artifact of its Internet origins, or is it a manifestation of systematic bias, as a recent boingboing article suggests? In true Wikipedia fashion, there is a committee exploring this very issue. The committee suggests recruiting outside of the traditional white, English-speaking nerd base of the Internet to broaden the scope of articles in Wikipedia — a noble effort, to be sure.
A larger question remains, though. There’s something distinctly 19th century about the endeavor in the first place. If we can build a bridge across the East River to Brooklyn, if we can dig a canal through the Suez, surely we can catalog all human knowledge, the Victorians boldly proclaimed. So, now, the Wikipedians cry, if we can identify every character in The Lord of the Rings, surely we can summarize the Congolese Civil War! But what’s the point of it all? Why bother? At least the Brooklyn Bridge made it easier to get to Dodgers games. What good is a collection of summaries, especially when so many primary sources are now available through a quick Google search?
I think Wikipedia, in the end, will be most useful as a proof-of-concept. If we can make a Wikipedia, why not a Wikichemistrytextbook, or a Wikirecipebook? The people that started Wikipedia are beginning to do just that, with Wikibooks like the Physics Study Guide. This is a bold frontier of the wiki universe, with many blank pages and broken links, but the future looks promising. Perhaps someday students will wonder why people used to have to pay for their textbooks, and why they couldn’t fix the books themselves when they found a mistake. And if the day arrives when students ask those questions, they’ll probably know to look for the answer in Wikipedia.