Wikipedia's Woes

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Is Wikipedia teetering on the edge of disaster? That's the question Stephen Foley addresses today in the British newspaper The Independent. In Foley's view, Wikipedia is in the middle of a zero sum game: either it deals with inaccuracies due to Wiki-vandalism or it comes to a grinding halt as readers wait for editors to approve changes -- the so-called "flagged revisions" policy.

Wikipedia in crisis?

The world's largest crowd source experiment has been an astonishing success thus far. Since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia has become a gigantic source of information with more than 12 million articles (almost 3 million of which are in English). In addition, its subject matter has far more depth and detail than many professionally edited encyclopedias available today, including Encyclopedia Britannica, which is experimenting with the online collaboration that Wikipedia popularized.

However, Wikipedia does have some serious shortcomings, the most glaring of which is its accuracy. Wikipedia contains correct information more often than not, but the fact that anyone in the world can edit an article has been problematic from time to time. For example, the entries for Barack Obama and John McCain were routinely defaced during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election; the pages for Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd prematurely announced their deaths when the men fell ill during inauguration festivities earlier this month; and Bruce Springsteen's entry was practically obliterated while the singer performed the half time show during last Sunday's Super Bowl.

Shortly after the Byrd-Kennedy incident, Wikipedia co-founder and evangelist Jimmy Wales called for a flagged revisions policy, where any edits to a predetermined set of English language articles would be delayed for review before going live on the site. The policy is currently in effect, but only for a trial period. Some worry the new policy may delay the posting of timely and accurate information that Wikipedia has become famous for. When actor Paul Newman died, for example, his entry on Wikipedia reflected that fact within minutes.

Funding and logistics for the site have also been issues. Wikipedia displayed a large banner on every page during December 2008 asking for donations to keep Wikipedia advertisement-free. In addition, Foley points out that Wikipedia is in the middle of some growing pains and becoming more and more organized and hierarchical as time goes on.

The future

Wikipedia may be at a crossroads, but it is far from dead and seems to only get stronger with time. With increasing numbers of people turning to this giant repository of human knowledge, it's not surprising that Wikipedia's caretakers -- the Wikimedia foundation -- look to protect the encyclopedia's accuracy and improve its reputation as a credible source of information. However, if Wikipedia English does start approving every single revision to all its articles it will be a very different resource than it is now. Whether that makes the product better or worse has yet to be determined.

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