Wikipedia, Britannica and a Buzzing in the air.

I subscribe to more than a few podcasts, both video and audio, but one of my favourite podcasts is a tech news podcast from CNET known as Buzz Out Loud. I’m a long-time fan: the current line-up of hosts is Tom Merritt, Molly Wood and Jason Howell, but I came in just as Veronica Belmont was a becoming a regular on the show. (See the Buzz Out Loud Wiki for more on the history of BOL). In general, I love the show and it’s a major source of my tech news. I love Tom’s evenhandedness and wit, and Molly’s rants are legendary and often hilarious.

In specific, though, I just listened the episode from Monday, April 21 2008, and at about 5 minutes in, Molly begins a discussion on the merits of Wikipedia as a research tool. In particular, she points out that she feels that Wikipedia is inaccurate and full of errors, and that even though she (in her own words) has been using it quite often, she dislikes Wikipedia, a sentiment that she has expressed in the past. If you don’t want to listen to the whole episode or hunt for the juicy bits, here’s a short, 20 second clip from their episode which should give you a flavour for her feelings on the topic:

I believe that Molly’s position is problematic. She chastises Wikipedia for inaccuracy, which to my mind is a questionable stance even though the evidence is aging. That’s not my main complaint, though. If you listened to the clip above, you heard Molly simultaneously criticize the encyclopedia for its problems and then reject the idea of participating in fixing them. She seems to view the Encyclopedia Britannica as a better model because they’re paid to be accurate.

My problem is this: Wikipedia is a community-driven resource. It is put together by ordinary people who come together en masse to construct its knowledge in a rather messy way, editing and overwriting and then editing again. In 15 seconds, Molly refuses to be a part of the community which creates Wikipedia, but then feels that she has the right to criticize its creation while still using it! If you explicitly withdraw from the process of improving Wikipedia, you are certainly within your rights to critique it, but if you continue to use it while doing so, your credibility is, unfortunately, shot. This is why we pay sources like Britannica – if Britannica screws up, we demand our money back because we entered into a transaction with them. The way that you pay for Wikipedia is to make it better.

I’ll use an analogy: BOL is based out of San Francisco, and I imagine that there are plenty of farmer’s markets there. Farmer’s markets are (to varying extents) community-driven. Small vendors show up in a common area at a given time, hawking their wares at the same time to anyone who wanders through. Local governments or businesses may support the farmer’s market, but the general idea is of small groups creating something.

Now, imagine that I walk into my local farmer’s market and decry the lack of purple carrots. I loudly berate everyone present for the lack of purple carrots being sold here, and then when someone suggests I sell them myself, I dismiss them because I don’t have the time to do that. Here’s the thing, though: while I continue to browse the stalls at the farmer’s market and buy things, I also continue to tell everyone that the market is broken and that I really prefer to shop at the supermarket down the street.

Do I have the right to criticize the market? Of course. Should I be surprised if half of the market throws things at me? No.

The point is: if you’re going to use a service, you have to pay for it. At Britannica, you pay for it with money. At Wikipedia, you pay for it in participation. If you don’t want to pay for the service, if you don’t feel the quality is up to your standards, don’t use it any more.

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