Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Review: "The Wikipedia Revolution"

"The Wikipedia Revolution" by Andrew Lih tells the short but enchanting story of Wikipedia: how the project conceived as a fairly regular for-profit web enterprise evolved into something dramatically different. In just a few short years after Nupedia creators embraced wiki-wiki-web and opened the site to everyone with a browser, Wikipedia grew to be one of the top 10 most visited sites on the Internet. It has unparalleled reach with its 259 supported languages, and at least 25 of these languages include over 100,000 articles. All of this has been achieved with essentially all-volunteer force from around the world.

There are some aspects of the book I didn't like very much. For example, it looks like the author has applied one of the Wikipedia editing principles: "No original research". All the information in the book is compiled from publicly available sources; there are no new interviews. Numerous biographies of geeks are rather boring, and most of the additional material about Linux, Free Software Foundation, Mozilla, etc. belongs in sidebars, not main text. (I was reading Chris Anderson's "Free" at the same time and it is amazing how much of that general material is echoed in both books.)

That being said, I am positive you will learn something new from "The Wikipedia Revolution" (unless you are a seasoned wikipedian, of course). Like the intricacies of maintaining three different scripts of the same language (check out Kazakh Wikipedia), for example. Or what roles in the organization are played by administrators and bots. Or what happened when someone googled the word "jew" and didn't like what he saw.

But in my opinion, the most interesting part discusses various controversies surrounding Wikipedia. How does a quality of articles produced by countless anonymous contributors compare with the quality of established encyclopedias, such as Britannica? How does the open system protect itself from vandalism and libel without becoming a closed system? How many articles is too much? (Does every high school need to have an entry? What about elementary schools?) Last but not least, what happened when it was revealed that a prominent Wikipedia contributor and administrator falsely pretended to be a university professor?

Enjoy the book!