Elitist Wikipedia Criticism

by on June 18, 2007 · 12 comments

Here’s the other specific criticism of peer production you’ll find in Carr’s critique of peer production:

But for all its breadth and popularity, Wikipedia is a deeply flawed product. Individual articles are often poorly written and badly organized, and the encyclopedia as a whole is unbalanced, skewed toward popular culture and fads. It’s hardly elitist to point out that something’s wrong with an encyclopedia when its entry on the Flintstones is twice as long as its entry on Homer.

Carr doesn’t even have the basic facts right here. To start with, the Flintstones entry, at some 5672 words, is actually only about 50 percent longer than the Homer entry, with around 3822 words. But more to the point, the entry on homer includes links to entries on the Homeric Question (1577 words), Ancient accounts of Homer (1183 words), Homeric scholarship (4799 words), Homeric Greek (582 words), and The Historicity of the Illiad (1720 words). If my math is right, that’s 13,683 words, more than double the number of words in the Flintstone’s article. (The Flintstone’s article doesn’t appear to be divided up into sub-sections as the Homer article is, although there are entries on Flintstones-related topics, such as the characters in the show and the actors who played them. But on the other hand, there are also lengthy entries on The Iliad, The Odyssey, The geography of the Odyssey, and The Trojan War.

I bet with some digging I could unearth a lot more entries related to each topic. I don’t have time to do such an exhaustive survey and come up with definitive figures. But the far more important question is not how different Wikipedia articles compare to each other, but how these articles compare to the corresponding articles in Britannica. The article on Homer appears to be 5281 words—longer than the main Wikipedia article, but much shorter than all of the Wikipedia articles on Homeric topics, most of which don’t have counterparts in the Britannica.

The Flintstone’s doesn’t appear to have an entry in Britannica at all, but the entry on William Hanna is a paltry 459 words, shorter than the corresponding Wikipedia entry.

So it appears that Wikipedia is slightly more comprehensive than Britannica about “serious” topics like Homer, but a lot more comprehensive on unserious topics like The Flintstones. If Carr prefers the Britannica to The Wikipedia based on its lack of coverage of The Flintstones, what word for this is there but “elitist”? Unlike a paper encyclopedia, adding more entries doesn’t cost anyone anything. If Carr isn’t interested in a topic, he doesn’t have to visit that entry. But some people apparently enjoyed creating the Flintstone’s entry, and hopefully some people enjoy reading it.

Indeed, this criticism is exactly the same as complaining that American Idol gets higher ratings than PBS, or that The Da Vinci Code sells more copies than War and Peace. The length of the article on Homer isn’t a judgment on Homer’s literary merits, any more than the Da Vinci Code’s sales statistics are a judgment on Dan Brown’s literary talents. Peer production, like free markets, are responsive to the desires of ordinary people. That’s one of its strengths, even if it leads to lengthy articles on subjects Carr doesn’t care for.

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