This note, more precisely Part One, was prepared in late December of 2005 as a reaction to a
critique of Wikipedia by four well-known computer scientists. Their article highlights,
Cassandra-style, all that can go wrong with the Wikipedia concept of an encyclopedia produced
by an iterative “community process” allowing anyone to edit any entry. A scary prospect
indeed. As my critique of their critique acknowledges, it’s hard to find fault with their cogently
argued analysis — except for one detail: in its eagerness to paint a theoretical picture of
Wikipedia as a disaster waiting to happen, it skipped checking the real Wikipedia, which would
have revealed that the disaster has not happened,
A more pragmatic look at Wikipedia as it exists today indicates that the project, while
perhaps not living up to the hype of its most fervent promoters, has become a superbly useful
tool for Web-based fact-finding. The original critique suffered, in my opinion, from a halfempty-
glass perspective, and from a misunderstanding of Wikipedia’s role in the world.
Without in the end disagreeing fundamentally with the authors’ analysis, I take a half-full-glass
view, based on a different understanding of what is Wikipedia’s competition: not the traditional
professionally produced encyclopedias, but the legions of sites that, springing up all over the
Web, purport to contain answers, unverified and often unverifiable, to every topic on earth.
Against that standard, Wikipedia is a resounding success. That’s the analysis I produced in
December, based on an assessment of what Wikipedia is, not what it could degrade into. You
will find it in Part One.
Because of other commitments I had to put aside finishing it up; but a rather personal
Wikipedia incident in early January, recounted in the second part, gives enough reason to get
back to it, and an interesting twist to the first.