My response to danah’s response about the Wikipedia/anti-elitism debate:
First, some background. I have the same “yes, but” reaction over and over to Wikipedia detractors — much of what both Sanger and boyd say is wrong with the Wikipedia is wrong with it, but then there’s this incredible leap from “The site as it stands has faults” to “…and so it must be ignored or radically altered.”
Reading pieces like Sanger’s, I feel like I’m being told that bi-planes fly better than F-16s because F-16’s are so heavy. You cannot understand how well things fly without understanding both weight and thrust.
It’s a similar leap to assume that, since the Wikipedia has disadvantages relative to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica must therefore be better. The real question is “Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the Wikipedia against the advantages and disadvantages of Britannica, under what conditions is Britannica better, and under what conditions is Wikipedia better?”
And of course, sometimes Wikipedia is better, since, as with the Indian Ocean tsunami example, Britannica simply has no offering. So, at the margin, a casual user who wants free access to a Web site that offers a communally-compiled and non-authoritative overview of a recent event will prefer the Wikipedia to nothing, which is what Britannica offers. In this case, Wikipedia comes out on top, and walking along several of those axes like cost, availability, topicality, and breadth of coverage, Wikipedia has the advantage, and in many cases, that advantage is increasing with time
Now Britannica doesn’t want this to be true (god, do they not want this to be true) and so they try to create litmus tests around authoritativeness — “WARNING: Do not read anything that does not come from an institutional source!” But this is as silly as audiophiles dismissing the MP3 format because it wasn’t an improvement in audio quality, missing entirely that the package of “moderate quality+improved cost and distribution” was what made the format great. Considering MP3 as nothing more than a lossy compression scheme missed the bundle of services that it enabled.
So with Wikipedia — it’s possible to make Britannica look superior to the Wikipedia by simply excluding characteristics Britannica cannot compete on, like cost, accessibility, and timeliness. And with that as background, I found this statement of danah’s, “It will never be an encyclopedia” (emphasis hers), to be both right and wrong in illuminating ways.
I agree with her if you add the unspoken bit to that sentence: “It will never be an encyclopedia (of the sort Britannica is.)” Stated this way, the assertion is true, and I don’t think anyone from Wikipedia would dispute that — not only is it radically different, it’s principle value is in that radical difference.
However, Britannica is not the only model for an encyclopedia. Before Britannica, encyclopedias had authors — Pliny, Bacon, Coleridge. Even Diderot and D’Alembert’s version, the bridge between the ancient and modern encyclopedia, had its entries written by the great and the good of the era. Britannica made it possible to extend the project of gathering and expressing encyclopedic knowledge, by substituting institutional brand for authorship. This allowed them to have more people working on more subjects, over a wider range of both inquiry and time, than was previously possible.
This was a huge leap, and one that required a shift in authority, away from the literal (authority derived from a particular author) to authority by proxy (though the entries have authors, the authority is derived from the values of the institution that employs those authors.)
So the idea that the Wikipedia will never be an encyclopedia is in part an ahistorical assertion that the definition and nature of encyclopediahood is fixed for all time, and that works like Britannica are avatars of the pattern. Contra boyd, I think Wikipedia will be an encyclopedia when the definition of the word expands to include peer production of shared knowledge, not just Britannica’s institutional production.