Today’s New York Times features an essay by Noam Cohen entitled “Wikipedia: Exploring Fact City“, in which Cohen explores the metaphor of Wikipedia as an information metropolis, repete with dead-end streets and industrial districts. It’s a nice read, even if Cohen gets a bit carried away with his artistic license.
But Nick Carr reacts strongly to the notion that Wikipedia offers “sidewalk-like transparency and collective responsibility”. In his post, entitled “Potemkinpedia“, Carr argues:
Wikipedia has imposed editorial controls on those articles, restricting who can edit them. Wikipedia has, to extend Cohen’s metaphor, erected a whole lot of police barricades, cordoning off large areas of the site and requiring would-be editors to show their government-issued ID cards before passing through.
Carr is right that that Wikipedia exerts editorial controls, and it’s true that not everyone agrees with Wikipedia’s means of doing so. Still, I feel his tone seems unnecessarily hostile, and he doesn’t point out that the amount of top-down control exerted to maintain Wikipedia is extremely low compared to the value it creates. Indeed, he cites “hundreds” of pages being protected without noting that Wikipedia contains 2,817,176 articles in English alone.
One of Wikipedia’s founding principles is “Assume good faith.” Perhaps I should do that myself, yet I can’t help but wonder if Carr’s relationship with Brittanica predisposes him against Wikipedia. In fairness to Carr, he has pointed out that relationship in some of his articles (like this one). But I actually hunted down a reference on his Wikipedia entry.
Personally, I give Wikipedia high marks for transparency. What other publication exposes the full revision history of its content and provides a public discussion forum for both its content and editorial process? I’ve had my disagreements with that process, but I can’t fault its openness. Indeed, my main criticism of Wikipedia is that it doesn’t require such transparency of authors, but instead allows authors to contribute anonymously.
Perhaps Carr sincerely wants Wikipedia to be more like Brittanica, or at least wants everyone to know that Wikipedia is not 100% unlike Brittanica. And perhaps Cohen offered an oversimplified vision of Wikipedia’s governance that some could see as a utopian vision of anarchy. But I think Carr is being a bit disingenuous. After all, even a metropolis has a mayor.