23 June 2006

Open Source History and Wikipedia

At times it seems that discussions about Wikipedia generate more heat than light. Even the supposedly objective comparison of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica made by Nature has descended into an ugly scholars' brawl. So it is something of a surprise - and a blissfully pleasant one at that - to come across a discussion of Wikipedia that is insightful, fair, well-written and downright fascinating.

The essay in question is called "Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past", and it's written by Roy Rosenzweig, Professor of History and New Media at George Mason University.

The essay is long, but it is well-worth reading all the way through its detailed comparison of Wikipedia and conventional reference works (there's a fine summary at the The Institute for the Future of the Book if you really need it). One of its shrewdest observations is the following:

Overall, writing is the Achilles’ heel of Wikipedia. Committees rarely write well, and Wikipedia entries often have a choppy quality that results from the stringing together of sentences or paragraphs written by different people. Some Wikipedians contribute their services as editors and polish the prose of different articles. But they seem less numerous than other types of volunteers. Few truly gifted writers volunteer for Wikipedia.

This piece stands as simply the best writing on Wikipedia yet. (Via Openpedia.org.)

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