If you read this blog quite often then you will see that I regularly link to articles on Wikipedia. For those in the dark, it is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Whilst that may sound like a recipe for disaster, since its birth in 2001 it has become one of the most useful and biggest websites on the internet.
You can find so much information on so many different subjects that it is truly mind boggling. Even better, the content is full of links that contextualize and help give you a deeper understanding of related issues and topics. But many people still seem to find misgivings about the whole Wikipedia approach.
The Wall Street Journal today has a conversation between Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica, Dale Hoiberg, about this very subject. The tone is a little “us vs them” but it gives an interesting insight into both of their approaches to gathering and disseminating information. I’ve been a fan of encyclopedias from a young age but I really think Hoiberg is clinging to a model that is becoming out dated:
…we don’t publish rough drafts. We want our articles to be correct before they are published. We stand behind our process, based on trained editors and fact-checkers, more than 4,000 experts, and soundwriting. Our model works well. Wikipedia is very different, but nothing in their model suggests we should change what we do.
Part of this sounds reasonable but one of the reasons Wikipedia has achieved such explosive growth is because of its open source approach. Whilst there is vandalism and articles that are not up to scratch, I’m consistently impressed both with the speed and quality of the content on there.
If you are a film lover it is a fantastic tool. A conventional encyclopedia will almost certainly contain information on the 1949 classic film The Third Man, but at Wikipedia (even though the entry could be beefed up) there are plenty of links to film noir, Orson Welles, expressionistic cinematography and who was in it.
It is also a fantastic resource for TV shows that are currrently ongoing like Lost or 24. There are detailed episode guides and entries for everything from characters to thematic motifs that appear in the show. I can’t think of another resource outside of official or devoted fan sites where this information would be available.
One example I find myself quoting to people a lot is the entry for the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. It is quite simply one of the most useful introductions you can find on the film. Not only does it contain a lot of information about it but also has references to books, documentaries and other websites about it.
If you look at the top right hand corner of the Blade Runner entry, you’ll see there is a small gold star. This means that it is “featured content“. In other words it is what Wikipedia editors believe to be the best of Wikipedia. Have a look at the entries for other featured content like Dog Day Afternoon, Lindsay Lohan, Hong Kong action cinema, Jaws or Sunset Boulevard.