Wikipedia for Africa

Came across an interesting post by Ethan Zuckerman entitled What does Wikipedia want to be? Particularly topical as I’m helping Walton Pantland research an article on Wikipedia, aimed at a South African audience. My main interest in Wikipedia is the potential it has, as a multi-lingual project, to act as a body of knowledge for the various South African languages. The fact that anyone can contribute, and that the information is freely distributable, to my mind gives Wikipedia a better chance of making a success of an African language encyclopedia than the commercial model, as the market for these would simply be too small. Many small language projects have come and gone, but I believe they would have been more successful through collaborating rather than operating independently, mostly to sink without trace shortly after.

Ethan poses a hypothesis he calls “GSM versus Ghana” – that Wikipedia covers technical topics accurately and in great detail, while certain topics, (such as anything African) are poorly covered. There’s no doubt he’s right, as a quick glance would show, and this must surely be based upon the demographics of the contributors. He suggests that the only way to improve this is to “radically expand [Wikipedia’s] base of contributors”, which again, I agree with. Robert McHenry , author of the article Zuckerman critiques (I’m not sure which is the original, but there’s a copy here) has an alternative hypothesis – the large number of contributors devalue the quality of articles. He uses an example of an article that’s been edited over 150 times, and was very poor quality (of course since the publicity that particular article has vastly improved).

McHenry’s criticisms are worth taking seriously, as he is Former Editor in Chief of the Encyclopædia Britannica. But while there are clearly weak areas in the existing Wikipedia content, it seems clear that it is improving all the time.

What connects Open Content, such as Wikipedia, Open Source Software, and a phenomonen such as blogs for journalism, is the shifting paradigm the divesting of power from central, ‘authorative’ sources, to multiple authorative sources. Individuals can freely contribute their code, their knowledge, their observations. Greater responsibility rests with the reader to sift through, as well as validate, this. McHenry refers to this when he says that the combination of prolificacy and inattention to accuracy that characterizes this process is highly suggestive of the modern pedagogic technique known as “journaling.” . He further shows his biases by stating that it may well be that the practice of journaling in the schools, along with the acceptance of “creative spelling” as a form of personal expression not to be repressed, underlies much of the success of Wikipedia..

On the whole his criticisms seem little more than rhetoric. He throws in some purple prose, attacks a single poor article, and uses this to belittle the entire process. But the phenomonal growth in breadth and depth of Wikipedia content indicates otherwise. There are areas that are poorly covered, that undoubtedly a Brittanica covers better. But for how long? Wikipedia is only 3 years old, and it’s achieved wonders.

For anyone interested in South African topics on Wikipedia, there’s a new initiative – the South African collaboration of the week. There’s also the Afrikaans Wikipedia. Other languages are just getting going – anyone interested in taking them further is welcome to contact me, or just get stuck in yourself.