Wikipedia, collaborative, free and up to date since 2001

15 January; this is the date in 2001 when Wikipedia was launched – the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet, and one of those amazing phenomena of the online era that have fundamentally changed the way we interact with information.

Searching Wikipedia - a daily activity for millions of Internet users.(© All Rights Reserved)
Searching Wikipedia – a daily activity for millions of Internet users.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The creators of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, came up with the name as a combination of a ‘wiki’ (a type of collaborative website) and ‘encyclopedia’ – thus succintly describing the way the site operates. Essentially a very simple concept, Wikipedia is described as “a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation.” From its humble beginnings a little more than a decade ago, Wikipedia has grown to an online encyclopedia containing 24 million articles in 285 languages (including over 4.1 million in the English Wikipedia) – all created collaboratively by about 100 000 contributors from around the world.

And popular it is – with over 35 million readers, and more than 2.5 billion page views per month from the US alone.

While the open, collaborative model behind Wikipedia holds many advantages – range of content, speed of update, etc – the non-expert, non-academic profile of much of the contributor base has raised some criticism, including questions about the accuracy and quality of some of its the content. While these concerns are valid, and there is no doubt some questionable content on Wikipedia, the way the information is presented tends to be very open, and non-verified information are usually flagged as such. As long as you realise that you are, in fact, dealing with a non-verified source, the level of information available via the platform really is staggering. And the self-regulatory action of the Wikipedia community does tend to lead to content that is, in the majority of cases, surprisingly well verified by experts in the relevant fields.

In fact, a 2005 investigation in Nature magazine showed that most of the content in Wikipedia come very close to the level of accuracy of an accepted reference work such as Encyclopædia Britannica.

So, whether or not you believe everything you read on Wikipedia, there’s no denying that it is an incredibly broad and up-to-date source of information on just about any topic you can imagine.  And that’s impressive, no matter how you look at it.

Melvil Dewey and the classification of knowledge

Today is the birthday of Melvil Dewey, the American librarian and educator, and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System of library classification. In memory of Melvil Dewey, today is the Dewey Decimal System Day.

The Dewey Decimal System, or Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) is a numerical system of library classification first proposed by Dewey in 1876. Since its inception, the classification has been revised and expanded through 23 editions, the latest issued in 2011. Basically the system provides a framework within which a library book is assigned a ‘DDC number’ that unambiguously locates it in a specific space of shelving in the library, making it easy to find and return to its proper place.

For every subject, there's a Dewey classification number - in this case, environmental pollution.(© All Rights Reserved)
For every subject, there’s a Dewey classification number – in this case, environmental pollution.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Dewey system classifies all books into 10 basic categories:

  • 000 – Computer science, Library and Information science & general work
  • 100 – Philosophy and psychology
  • 200 – Religion
  • 300 – Social sciences
  • 400 – Language
  • 500 – Science
  • 600 – Technology
  • 700 – Arts
  • 800 – Literature
  • 900 – History, geography & biography

While fiction books can also fit into the Dewey system (in the 800s), most libraries reserve the system for non-fiction works, rather classifying fiction using a basic alphabetic author-based system.

The Dewey system is used by no less than 200 000 libraries in more than 135 countries. It’s main competitor is the American Library of Congress Classification, which is more complex, but does have the advantage that it allows for the addition of new categories, which makes it more future-proof. The Library of Congress Classification is, however, very US-centric, and despite its increased adaptability it has been much less widely adopted than the Dewey system.

To what extent Dewey’s Decimal System will be able to continue remaining relevant as the knowledge landscape changes remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt that Melvil Dewey made a huge contribution to the classification and accessibility of knowledge the world over. And that must be a good thing.

 

Information overload, social media and the Internet

Today is Information Overload Awareness Day, the day attention is focused on the crazy state of information overload existing in the world, thanks to ‘the Internet’ (a concept that is becoming more abstract and hazy by the day), social media, blogging, cloud computing, you name it.

And, by writing this blog entry about it, I am of course adding yet another drop to the ocean of information, contributing knowlingly to the ever rising levels of useful and useless information that is threatening to engulf every remaining bit of ‘dry land’ of the world.

It was estimated as long ago as 2008 that information overload is costing the US economy around $900 billion a year, through lowered employee productivity. When numbers get that big, I’m always unsure what they’re called – that’s almost $1 trillion, right? And that number is probably a lot higher by now. The average ‘knowledge worker’ (itself a term that didn’t really exist before the unbounded proliferation of data and information) is said to spend at least 50% of his day ‘managing information’ – sifting through emails, finding and validating ‘facts’, etc. And that is just the productive side of things – even more time is spent lost in the bottomless depths of facebook, twitter, youtube and the like.

If you can’t beat them, overload them…
While we complain about information overload, we all contribute to the problem – me possibly more than many. But at the same time, social media can be an important and effective tool for marketing and communication. I guess it will always be a careful balancing act between too much and too little.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The sad thing, of course, is that among the dirt there are some real diamonds. There are blogs and opinion pieces, both online and in print, that I try to read on a regular basis, and that I really feel poorer for not having read for a few days due to some work deadline or other crisis. But finding these among the thousands upon thousands of blog posts generated daily can be a real challenge. Even just trying to keep up with WordPress’ daily Freshly Pressed list is an almost impossible task.

I’m sure no amount of awareness creation about the problem of information overload is going to change things – we have gotten too used to having pages upon pages of information on any and every topic we can possibly think of, at our fingertips. And in many ways it’s good. There’s no way I would have been able to do this blog if there wasn’t all kinds of arbitrary facts floating around to tap into. But at the same time, I guess the responsible thing to do is to at least try and limit the amount of data we push out on a daily basis. Which is one of the reasons I prefer blogging to twitter, for example – in compiling a blog post, I like to believe people at least invest a little thought. Tweeting is just too easy and immediate, resulting in the masses mindlessly excreting an ever-growing pile of data-dung (my personal view, of course).

On the topic of excrement – when did Facebook change from being a place where people actually sort-of talked to each other, to a platform where all people do all day are to share ‘cute’ photos and cartoons, and resend arbitrary ‘amusing’ status updates? Facebook used to be a platform I found quite useful to keep in touch with friends and family when we moved to another country, but over the last couple of years the signal to noise ratio has fallen so low that it is hardly worth facebooking anymore.

Oh well…  There I go – one rant about information overload, and I’ve contributed a few hundred more words to the problem.  I think for the rest of this Information Overload Awareness Day I should just switch off all computers, smartphones, TVs and radios, and go mow the lawn or something.