A recent article has brought to the world’s attention that Wikipedia has over 2 million articles on its website and that’s great. What it means is that thousands of people have taken a little time out of their day to provide what knowledge they had to a global audience through their small contribution.
The World Wide Web was not always as easy to use as it is today. Back when I started using the world wide web there were less than six million web pages. Now there are several billion and google is helping to index this mess. This mess I’m talking about is the enormous amount of content that people have created and shared on the world wide web without any consideration for ease of retrieval. In 1997 when I wrote about the Romans I was one of ten to twenty people who created content on this topic. As a result, it was not hard to get other people’s attention. As pioneers of online content when Larry Page and others started to create lists of interesting websites it was easy to be added to the collection. As more content was produced so the link collection would have to be stepped up and get help from search algorithms. I remember when Altavista was one of the great websites you wanted to be linked from.
I remember the first time I saw that Google had sent me traffic. It was quite interesting because google was a young startup only just getting to be noticed. I was happy because I was the top result on this search engine as a result of which I would get more traffic.
There was one drawback however and that was that I did not have the time or inclination to carry out the level and quality of research to write new articles therefore I looked for contributors. I tried with forms, with e-mail addresses, and with a forum. All of these had little or no success because I had not generated enough of an active audience. I was getting many insults and questions by e-mail but no one bothered to give me answers.
As a result, what you see there today is what I wrote when I came back from a holiday in the Ardèche region of France.
Over the years I would study a number of subjects and as I learned a little more on each one I would add a page or two and see more traffic and more comments come my way. The lack of contributions meant that my website is the labour almost entirely of one person. Last month I had half a million visits in a twelve-month period. Keep in mind that I am not a social networking website and have no programing knowledge to create something attractive to a mass audience in the same way as Flickr, Facebook or other websites.
Communities have been part of the internet since the BBS days when it was text-based and only universities and government officials had access. Over time so the community would develop and people would team up to work on specific projects. Wikipedia was one of them. Jimmy Wales found a model by which he could get people to contribute “as little or as much” as they wanted. They could as easily add one line of text as add an in-depth explanation of a theorem. As a result, no one was kept out of the loop.
He is often credited with being a pioneer whilst in fact, this notion is as old as the first dictionaries. Whilst I do not remember the name of the first people to compile the first dictionary I do remember that they worked by contributions. Their idea was simple. They would ask people to write down a word and a description of what they thought it meant. Over the years as more and more words were amassed, and as the need for storage went from a room to a barn and beyond so the dictionary would become a good resource for a uniform definition of words. I’m sure there’s a great dissertation to be written on that topic.
Anyway, the point is this; through the combined effort of a community so knowledge could be processed and shared through dictionaries, encyclopedias, and more. In so doing we now have access to the answer to any question we can think up.
I have noticed a trend in online interaction that has been particularly strong within the past six months to a year and this is the centralisation of specific activities. If you’re looking for social communities there is a movement away from interest-based communities to having mega-communities such as Facebook, myspace, Bebo, youtube, and Flickr. Each of these communities helps to bring together vast amounts of people but they also help to move away from the search engine.
What I mean by this is that whereas in 1997 you would go to search engines and type a search query today you know that you’ve got central locations where to concentrate your effort. In 1997 you’d type Roman Civilisation and my website would have been the first result. Today if you type the same query you’ll end up on Wikipedia because at least to thousand dedicated people have put so much time into the web site aggregating and collating information.Â As a result of this some people would say that the section of my website on the Romans is redundant since you have such a great resource within the depths of Wikipedia. The web killed Encarta and similar efforts to provide encyclopedias in electronic form. As a bonus, any researcher can drop by Wikipedia, find a short introduction in what he is researching before moving away from this website to a more in-depth knowledge that has been written by academics and experts in their field of research.
This brings me to the Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen. He was criticized by people such as Leo Laporte for expressing his thoughts that the web is a congregation of content for idiots. You can tell he didn’t read the book or listen to the audio file and here’s why. The web is full of content that takes only a few seconds to compile and digest but that’s because those who are new to the medium are playing around and testing a variety of possibilities. Now take a look at the trends for university graduates per year and you’ll see that there’s an increase in the number of highly educated people.
As a result of this, there is an increasing number of experts on a progressively diverse number of topics. If you’re specialised in zombie films, as was one friend, for his dissertation then you’ve got a widening base of specialists who can talk between themselves. It’s the same for development studies, for documentary and any other intellectual pursuit.
Whilst academics are busy carrying out research and making sure that every point they make is backed up by at least three or fur other sources the “plebs” for lack of a better word are playing around with the technology and seeing what works and doesn’t. For them, it does not matter whether what they say is right or wrong because they have fewer credentials. Take as an example of what happened to the BBC with the Hutton inquiry. The problem was not whether the information was correct or incorrect but who was saying it. If Sky news makes certain allegations then they will be ignored because they are not as highly regarded as the BBC. The BBC is held in such high regard that should they say anything that is not absolutely backed up by the fact they will be called to account.
It’s the same with the online community. Children and teenagers are developing the infrastructure, which they, as grown-ups will take full advantage of. Wikipedia is a self-moderated international community of researchers who work together to get the most accurate information out to their readers. We should see the same trends within the wider blogosphere and as people gain more experience in audio and video websites such as myspace, youtube, and Facebook.
Jimmy Wales and his community have demonstrated on a small scale, with over two million articles, what we should expect to see from the World Wide Web within the next few years.