Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Wikipedia Revolution by Andrew Lih, Foreword by Jimmy Wales

The Wikipedia Revolution How A Bunch of Nobodies Created The Worlds Greatest Encyclopedia by Andrew Lih, Foreword by Jimmy Wales Founder of Wikipedia.

This book is written by Jimmy Lih who was an editor for Wikipedia for over four years. The book itself reads very much like Wikipedia does. If you like using Wikipedia, you probably will like this book. Mr. Lih seems to use the NPOV (no point of view) style which Wikipedia uses in writing the book. If you look in the notes section, the majority of citations come directly from the Wikipedia site.

There is a lot of precursor material to when Wikipedia starts. The technology behind Wikipedia is very much a history of open source software, linux, and "the hacker ethic." In 1995, Ward Cunningham invented Wiki software which was a quick way to edit and create web pages by any person involved. It was not until 2001 that Wikipedia was started. Wiki is the Hawaiian word for "quick."

The book describes how already existing technology coalesces around a new form of organization to make an online encyclopedia. Wikipedia is based on volunteer time. Very few people on Wikipedia are paid. A lot of the people who are editors on Wikipedia come from a premiere technical community. Many of the same people who work on open source software which is free work on Wikipedia which is also free. The majority of the licensing on Wikipedia's content is copyleft, an idea created by Richard Stallman, a famous computer programmer and proponent of the GNU free documentation license.

Wikipedia is not the first major reference work which asked for donations of free time to create. The Oxford English Dictionary put out general requests for donations of dictionary entries. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester chronicles a story in the creation of the OED. Wikipedia takes it one step further, it asks for donations and then makes the information freely available.

There is a story of Wikipedia taking what is already available in the public domain, editing it and expanding it into encyclopedic entries. Wikipedia absorbed the United States census data and used it as a template for creating descriptions of towns and cities in the United States. The CIA World Fact Book entries were taken as descriptions of countries and then expanded with user generated content. When I use Wikimedia, I see many images from the Library of Congress archives which are in the public domain. This is incredibly useful, however, it has some problems with reliability.

The human factor is both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. Because anybody can contribute to Wikipedia, there are a number of problems. Wikipedia acknowledges they are not a primary source of information, the majority of their information is secondary. We learn they are not seeking to be a place for original research. I thought this was very interesting. When I use Wikipedia, I find the citations in Wikipedia's entries to be far better in many cases then the written entries because they link to primary or original research.

The structure of Wikipedia described in this book is very loose. The code of conduct seems to be more important than fixed rules. This looseness has led to a lot of controversies; inaccurate biographical entries, editors who are other than they say they are, a focus on self-promotion, a preference for popular articles over more academic works, and a way of work based on the idea of consensus. The infighting and the controversies inside Wikipedia are described in detail inside this book. We get the story of how spammers, trolls, libelous content, edit wars, and other problems are addressed.

I liked reading this book. It gives a lot of insights into how people can build on peoples previous works. I also like Wikipedia and find it a useful. This book tries to be objective, it is not pure praise which makes it much better than many recent books on technology. The writing is journalistic in style. The book has citations and an index, but no pictures.

1 comment:

Forgetful Librarian said...

I really appreciate this review. Wikipedia has been such a hot topic in regards to librarianship. It seems like it is becoming more legitimate as a research tool. I will try to pick up a copy of the book.