Saturday, March 24, 2007

Wini, Widi, Wiki

When I was a kid, my mom sold the World Book Encyclopedia. I don't know how many years she did it, but long enough to earn a set for our house, which I'm sure was her primary objective. While the older set of (no doubt hand-me-down) Encyclopedia Brittanica remained mostly untouched, I spent a lot of time with the World Book. I remember being both fascinated and repulsed by the plastic-sheet overlays depicting the systems of the human body, a frequenter of all the articles on the moon and space travel (we were nationally obsessed with the moon in those days) and often inclined to just pick out a volume at random and start reading (or, more likely, looking at the pictures.) As my mom had hoped, I loved the World Book.

Logically, I now have a deep and abiding relationship with Wikipedia. (If you need to get up to speed, read the "About" page, or read the article on the topic of Wikipedia in the Wikipedia.) Wikipedia is everything the web is supposed to be, and I thank God for Al Gore and his invention of the Internet! I know some people bash Wikipedia. (Funny take on it from Wired here.) "Anybody can say anything in those articles! How can you believe what you're reading?," they say. Consider, however, that it is not anybody doing the writing, but it is everybody doing the writing. If you contribute something goofy, it won't last an hour. Granted, there have been some high profile smears perpetrated - but to suggest this only occurs in the shape-shifting web world is silly. Most of the first class smearing is done on the printed page, and there's no counterpoint, no rapid-fire editing, to remove those black marks on your permanent record. And consider also, that back in the day of the Brittanica and World Book dead tree versions, a writer's agenda-laden article could get published as fact and influence the perceptions of entire generations.

As a example of its colossal usefulness, here's a list of my most recent Wikipedia searches, all of which yielded a fact-filled result in nanoseconds:
  • Harpy
  • Prometheus
  • Hannibal
  • Billy Joe Hargis
  • Battle of Thermopylae
  • Malthus
  • Neosho
  • Polio
  • Population bomb
  • PS2
  • Scion (the car)
  • Sparta
  • Viet Nam
  • Wells Fargo
These are just searches at home, maybe 15% of my computer time, over the last 2 months or so. While I'm sure World Book would have done a fine job with "polio" or "Sparta", I'm not so sure it would have been helpful with "Scion (the car)" or "Neosho" (which is an Indian word but I was looking for the small town in southwest Missouri. Oh, want to know more? Here's the link to Neosho on Wikipedia. Enjoy.)

Moral(s) of the story:
a. Wikepedia is everything World Book wanted to be
b. I would not want to be a door-to-door encylopedia salesman today.
c. Those plastic sheet overlays of the human body are still way cool.

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