In Internet years, I’m a dinosaur. If you want to learn about dinosaurs, type “dinosaur” into google and you’ll get — as of this minute — a tickle over 16 million hits. I was able to examine the first few million, but beyond that I found it quite impossible to evaluate which were worthy of further pursuit.
By any account, 16 million is a lot of references. Surely, competent thinkers willing to press their sharp wit against the prospect could cut the fluff to find which among them was spot on. Within a few years, anyway.
History tells us that libraries used to have what they called a “Reference” section. Ordinarily, the books from this section could not be borrowed, so that their contents would be constantly available. In this ancient time, the inquirer would first consult an encyclopedia for a broad overview of a topic, then consult references from the encyclopedia article or card catalog until the topic had been exhausted or sufficiently covered.
It is important to consider how awfully difficult it is to get a book published, especially by a respectable publisher. Given the arduousness of the process, one could rest fairly assured that the books in the stacks and on the reference shelves would have been well-researched and written and would be, shall we say, reliable.
Let’s say that I wanted to publish a book about sandpaper. My first step would be to compile and devour every source that I could find. Then, I would write up a thesis and an outline, or most generally, provide a structure for my text. Structure in hand, I would write a chapter or two in an effort to work out ideas and style for potential publishers. Then, I’d start to query relevant publishers, pitching the book as a must-read for a reference-starved demographic,
thus guaranteeing bestseller sales.
Once accepted, I’d have probably six months to a year to deliver the manuscript. Then the editing process would begin, I’d get proofs to review, consult on cover design, and finally, a couple of years into the process, my book might be published.
On the other hand, if I wanted to write an Internet article about sandpaper, I’d write it, format it as a web page, and upload it to a server on which I purchase space.
It could be that my Internet article about sandpaper was the most intriguing sandpaper exposé ever written. But who would know? Even if it was well written, no one would have cross-checked my facts or evaluated the structure of my arguments. There would be no consensus about the quality and accuracy of my Internet article.
That’s just about where we stand with the 16 million pages that mention dinosaurs. Very little edit / review /oversight. Maybe incomplete sentences. Or speling mistook.
It’s not an Earth-shattering case that I’m proposing here: there’s little question that the Internet sacrifices quality for quantity, and leaves us, hungry knowledge consumers, with little capacity to sift through the rubble to find the edible crumbs.
Google’s recent claim to have “indexed” three times the number of pages of their nearest competitors is a less than impressive claim, since it implies that it will take even longer to sift through their triple-sized pile.
I think that it’s fair to describe their pile this way because, let’s be honest, most of the pages out there are junk. Hardly any are peer reviewed, most people edit their own work, and there is no consequence for passing off bad information.
What we really need is an encyclopedia.
And that’s just what we have in the form of Wikipedia, an altogether fantastic, peer-reviewed resource, with already over a million articles. What makes the Wiki so useful is that it is wide open. You and I can edit it at any time. The first temptation might be to think that this is a terrible editorial model, but it works. It works because articles go through what amounts to a perpetual peer review process. If erroneous information gets posted, not long thereafter, it will be corrected. Plus, you can look at old versions of every article and review the progress for yourself. If you are knowledgeable in a field, you can feel free to contribute that knowledge to the article. In sum, the openness of the process makes it self-correcting.
What amuses me most is how we have come full circle. The Internet was supposed to become an indispensable research tool, and it still is to some extent. But it’s not the infallible source that some of us felt that it could have been. The Internet’s fundamental drawback is its lack of structure — this is what separates a pile of unrelated articles from an encyclopedia. The structural deficiency, combined with a lack of peer review and editorial voice, renders much of the Internet’s available information suspect at best, drivel at worst.
When dinosaurs like me roamed the Earth, the encyclopedia, with its structure, its review process and its consistent voice was always the best general starting point for much research. When printed encyclopedias started losing their central place in reference sections, Internet searches tried to take their place. But with the way that the Internet seems to resist structure and elude relevant searches, I find myself right back where I started — and where I was always
comfortable — with the encyclopedia now called “Wiki”.