Wikipedia, that vast storehouse of knowledge and other sentences passing for knowledge, turns 10 years old this weekend. The fifth-most-popular website has become, as Jonathan Lethem puts it, "a Borgesian paraphrase of our entire universe," and is considered an almost impossibly valuable resource by many. But there's something disturbing about the way it flattens everything it describes, how it embodies milquetoast consensus, and the nature of its "objective" language.
To try to capture the many ways we think about Wikipedia, we reached out to an all-star ensemble of thinkers to comment on the site's texture and community. We asked them a simple question -- what do you think about Wikipedia? -- and we're immensely pleased with the responses we got. (The full essays are lurking behind those links.)
Bruce Sterling, writer, futurist: People sometimes figured that, since Wikipedia entries were all crowdsourced and public and resilient and such, they'd be strong like the Internet is strong. It's a bit more plausible to say that they're strong like a big sprawling semilegal favela is strong. A favela where a rather road-worn and weary Jimmy Wales has to be an unelected mayor.
Charlie Cheever, co-founder, Quora: A lot of times, too, people say to me, "As Quora gets bigger, isn't the quality of answers on the site going to degrade? Don't you know people on the Internet are stupid?" In the face of that, Wikipedia is inspiring. It's reassuring to be able to look at what you're doing and say, some percentage of people really care and are smart.
Mariette DiChristina, editor-in-chief, Scientific American: Wikipedia underscores an evolutionary lesson: We've always gotten farther as a species collaborating than going it alone. As a longtime science journalist, I can't stop myself from looking at human endeavors through the lens of possible past selection pressures. Wikipedia reminds me of in-group information sharing.
Jonathan Lethem, novelist, Pomona professor: With all respect to the noble volunteer army, I call it death by pedantry. Question: hadn't we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikipedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity.
Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor: People who study online life are familiar with the One Percent Rule. It says that if 100 people gather at a given site, about 10 percent will contribute anything at all, even a comment at a blog post, and less than one percent will become deeply engaged as a regular contributor. The rest will just use the service.
Mary H.K. Choi, writer, bonne vivante: Wikipedia's a collaborative experiment akin to Winchester's account of the creation of the OED, which outlines Murray's mission to produce the tome. Murray was aided substantially by the offerings of Dr. William Chester Minor, a surgeon and lunatic murderer. Just as some contributors to Wikipedia will likely be.