Wikipedia or Potemkinpedia?

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.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

3 replies on “Wikipedia or Potemkinpedia?”

Yeah, I suppose you’re right. But he has a large audience, and Wikipedia gets enough crap thrown at it as it is. Constructive criticism is healthy, but this seems more like a low blow.


Carr’s argument is mainly weak in that it ignores the intentions behind the protections applied to articles. Essentially, semi-protection’s only supposed to be used used where it’s needed—where vandalism would otherwise be so often that it might get out of hand. As Wikipedia gets more and better tools to fight vandalism, crude methods of prevention, like semi-protection, can be used more sparingly. Wikipedia wants to be open, and the evidence is simple in that only a few thousand (≤5,000) of Wikipedia’s millions (>2.8M) of articles are at all protected from editing. That’s less than 0.2% of all articles.

What’s besides the point, of course, is that Carr’s preferred Britannica is only edited by its staff—in a city analogy, that would be what, an oppressive dictatorship? 🙂


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