Wikis and the construction of “common knowledge”

Despite the ongoing controversy on the reliability of projects such as Wikipedia, a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that more than a third of American adult internet users (36%) use this citizen-generated online encyclopedia on a regular basis.  It’s perhaps ironic that despite efforts to discourage college students from using it as a serious research tool, the same study reports that Wikipedia’s popularity is particularly strong among the well-educated! 

An interesting article by Larry Sanger, On the New Politics of Knowledge,” points to the merits and pitfalls of the new collaborative web environment responsible for the creation of resources such as Wikipedia and what we consider common knowledge.  Sanger, with a Ph.D. in philosophy and one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, argues that the democratization of knowledge as a product of contributions by the general public has indeed allowed a wider representation of different perspectives and a more efficient way to generate accurate information under the watchful eyes of multiple contributors.  On the other hand, he also contends that collaborative projects such a Wikipedia need an additional layer of oversight to add credibility and depth, and to confirm what the expert opinion is on different topics. Wikipedia’s stand that the word of the crowd is to be trusted as a product of collective effort, indiscriminate of the contributors’ levels of expertise, is flawed, says Sanger. Wisdom and knowledge need to be appreciated as more than social constructs of an undifferentiated, anonymous crowd of contributors. 

To provide a practical application to his arguments and counter issues of reliability of projects such as Wikipedia, Sanger last month launched a new collaborative venture, Citizendium, as the credible alternative to Wikipedia.  Citizendium’s web site includes only articles that carry the names of their authors along with a “seal of approval” from experts that oversee such contributions. Still in its early stages of development and relatively small in its content (as of April 30, there were 1,700 articles), Citizendium is yet another experiment in the world wide web of information that tries to assert itself for its credibility and usefulness.  However, only time will tell if Citizendium develops a distinct enough appeal to draw users away from Wikipedia to what it claims to be most important, a more authoritative contribution to the creation of common knowledge.  For the time being, it’s worth keeping an eye on its potential competitive edge to the much more popular, albeit controversial, Wikipedia!


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