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I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Why Wikipedia’s errors aren’t a problem

In a post on his twopointouch blog, Ian Delaney examines the Wikipedia phenomenon in depth. It’s a very comprehensive and well-written article (I suspect that it’s intended for the book he’s writing about Web 2.0) and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a primer on Wikipedia — which you probably don’t need if you're reading this blog.

While reading the section of the post which covers the question of Wikipedia’s accuracy, something crystallized in my mind which had been lying nascent for a long time, and I wrote it as a comment on the post. You can read it at this link, but I thought I’d reproduce the relevant portion here:

I believe that the concerns about Wikipedia’s accuracy are excessive, for a reason I don’t think I’ve seen mentioned anywhere (not that I’ve searched). I trust well-written articles and distrust poorly written ones, and I believe this to be a very common habit. It’s a good strategy because writers who are careful about things like clear phrasing tend to be the same people who are careful about accuracy. And it’s a very easy strategy to use, because it’s obvious how well written a particular article is (or portion of an article): I don’t have to think. So as I read an entry I’m automatically rating it for accuracy — despite having no direct evidence. Consequently the many bad articles in Wikipedia don’t mislead me.

Note this implication: that many Wikipedia articles are badly written is a *good* thing. If the people who couldn’t get their facts correct were able to write well, I might end up believing a lot of nonsense. People *do* tend to believe what they read — but fortunately many or most of us have a built-in alarm bell for bad writing, which serves as an excellent indicator of poor accuracy.


Ian responded in agreement, and pointed out two additional things:

It also identifies articles that are contentious, since they will be the ones that have had hundreds of substantial edits, almost certainly leading to some stylistic inconsistency and ‘stammering’.

I guess the ‘difficulty’ would be people who can’t distinguish good writing from bad. Maybe, they’d be a lot safer paying the [Encyclopedia Brittanica] for a subscription.

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