Wikipedia and the Centralization of Information

by Krishna on October 25, 2011

A friend on Google+ shared a link to this post about Wikipedia by Noam Cohen:

what has been lost to Wikipedia because of stickling rules of citation and verification. If Wikipedia purports to collect the “sum of all human knowledge,” in the words of one of its founders, Jimmy Wales, that, by definition, means more than printed knowledge, Mr. Prabhala said. In the case of dabba kali, a children’s game played in the Kerala state of India, there was a Wikipedia article in the local language, Malayalam, that included photos, a drawing and a detailed description of the rules, but no sources to back up what was written. Other than, of course, the 40 million people who played it as children.

The idea behind Wikipedia was to have an online encyclopedia that offers authoritative information about anything and everything. It has succeeded in its original vision, but there has always been a conflict between authority and completeness. The more information there is, the less authoritative it is, and vice versa. You can have very strict standards as to what can be a Wikipedia article and the content in that article, but enforcing those standards can mean that some information (which is in fact true) may have to be cut out.

If you look at many of the massive web properties (Facebook, Stack Overflow, Twitter, etc.) and many of the lesser ones, their prominent mission (stated or otherwise) is to collect information about something in one place. The Stack Exchange websites want to have the most relevant information about programming (and other topics) on their site. Facebook and Google+ want to capture all the conversations and interactions between family members, friends, and acquaintances. You could see the owners of PeepCode wanting to dominate the technical video market.

But there is a different vision of the Internet which you can see in search engines and blog engines. The concept is that information is never centralized. It is distributed across the Internet and you can find the right information by searching. People don’t put their thoughts in Facebook or some social networking site. They express their ideas on their own web page. And you visit them to get information.

So, across the web, we have two conflicting trends going on. One is the rise of massive content web sites that seek to consolidate information. Another is the increasing disbursement of information by new blogs and websites created by individuals and companies. The consolidated information may be more accurate and authoritative. But it is no way near complete.

The search engine vision is clearly the more open one. Even if content web sites allow you to maintain your intellectual property rights over your content, they also acquire a royalty-free license to duplicate your content behind their “closed wall”. But it is not clear which trend and vision is going to win. On one hand, you can see the rise and fall of social networks, thus destroying content that was created. On the other hand, dispersed content is also in danger of dying, as people fail to renew their hosting plan or domain name, or simply delete their previous work. And creating and publishing content in the first place is more complicated as you need more technical knowledge to operate your own website than posting to Facebook.

In the long run, as prices comes down and technology becomes easier, there is a greater chance of people building and maintaining their own content. We could also see people’s wills budgeting money to keep a site active after a person’s death. Ideally, of course, when a person dies, their work becomes public domain. But that is not how current copyright regimes work, and so people would have to explicitly spell that out in their wills.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: