Bill Zeller points me to this rant by Jason Scott about Wikipedia. Scott basically tried being a Wikipedia editor, didn’t enjoy the experience, and concluded that it was “a failure.” He has various complaints about the way the Wikipedia process works, but since he doesn’t offer any specific examples, it’s hard to evaluate his complaints. He is, by his own admission, a “moody loner,” which is probably not the kind of person best suited to be a Wikipedia contributor.
What I found particularly interesting is the comments:
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that your definition of Great Failure doesn’t really mean very much. I’ve avoided doing any “work” for wikipedia because, well, I have a life and a job and my own weblog, and much prefer to focus my energies there. But as a -user-, I’ve found it to be an invaluable resource. So as a -user-, I call it a success. I could care less whether there was lots of “lost energy” in creating the articles I used, as long as in the end they’re accurate, and as long as they keep coming.
And Scott basically agrees:
You are correct; from the outside, to someone who is looking for basic information, a lot of Wikipedia will be ‘good enough’. Mistakes made will not be any more intensely different than anywhere else, that is, shallow take on the topic, common misperceptions (that are in a lot of sources) and so on.
I think Scott’s mistake is failing to distinguish between the micro and macro perspectives of the Wikipedia process. At a micro level, a lot of what happens on Wikipedia looks wasteful and irrational. Smart people sometimes contribute good content and their contributions are screwed up by idiots. What Scott fails to appreciate is that guaranteeing that no good edit is discarded would be vastly more expensive than the edits themselves. Rather than having an expensive process in which every edit moves in the right direction, Wikipedia has a dirt cheap process that moves things in the right direction on average. That obviously works in the aggregate. But if you look at it up close, it’s not hard to find examples that seem grotesquely irrational.