Even a chimp can write code

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wikipedia: open, but not open source

The New York Times has an interesting article about Wikipedia which debates the epistemological question: Can an article be judged as credible without knowing its author?

I'm something of a Wikipedia junkie: sometimes more so than others. But I'll be the first to admit I wouldn't bet all my money on the facts in a Wikipedia article. Finding articles with completely neutral points of view (NPOV) can be as difficult as grabbing eels with oily hands.

Too often, comparisons are made with open source software. I think this is highly misplaced. Although Wikipedia lives by the same community model, it lacks the closed coterie of committers that govern open source projects. This may be why your average Wikipedia article isn't as credible and accountable as a typical open source project. Because of this, sometimes people paint Wikipedia - very unfaily - as having dubious sources and methods. Without centralized editing or enforceable policies, one has seen the proliferation of opinion in places where facts are required. Wikipedia does have some saving graces though. It has fair, open policies, some effective safeguards against vandals. And it has done well to keep the influence of ads (and the ethical issues arising from them) away from its content. It hasn't done so hot in eliminating bias though. And in that area, it relies on the alertness and diligence of its contributors.

However, even with its few failings, I wouldn't want Wikipedia to adopt the two tiered open source model: liberal in encouraging contributions, but restrictive in adopting contributed content. I would go so far as argue that the biggest failing of Wikipedia, its openness, is also its biggest asset. You won't see Wikipedia content upheld as expert documentary evidence in a court of law, but you can sure rely on it as one among a wide range of sources available to you. In the end, it is upto you to sift through the mounds of data and make sense of it all. You decide what parts are trustworthy and what aren't. Just as you do with your news outlets. You do that, don't you?

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