November 09, 2006 |
The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was built on submissions, many of them from without project. Just read The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester. It was one of the most ingeniously devised social networks of the 19th century, perhaps in all of history. Begun with a grid of 54 pigeon-hole cubbies to organize quotations (which would eventually be categorized by what we know them as: definitions), the OED was helmed by a trio: Richard Chenevix Trench, Herbert Coleridge, and Frederick Furnivall. Skeptics figured the initiative wasteful of one’s time, but they pushed forth with the whole thing anyway.
Trench, the project’s head, couldn’t pursue the time-intensive construction of the OED, so he relinquished his title of head to Coleridge.
But putting it all together wasn’t what made the OED a brilliant invention. It was who put it all together. As Winchester deduced in his book (an entertaining read, I might add), there were many external contributors to the effort, perhaps the most prolific of whom resided inside a Lunatic Asylum. Dr. W. C. Minor was his name.
I’ll leave out the specifics to keep this relatively concise and to-the-point. I mention this particular to highlight the fact that the world’s OEDs have been done before. Some say Wikipedia is the first of its kind. But that isn’t true.
And discounting the notion that it is new doesn’t debunk Wikipedia’s mission in any way. No, it just means that we’re heading forward while keeping a promise to past great inventors and thinkers. A promise to build on the past to expand our knowledge, rather than start afresh.
It’s been one of the foundations upon which Web 2.0 was founded, before Ajax became a common technological abbreviation-turned-noun, before mirror images and shadowing was thought of as cool.
The root goal of Wikipedia is to bring folks from all over the world together to contribute to one goal: Making an ever more open and accessible destination from which anyone can attain knowledge freely, and upon which they can build on their own knowledge of old and new things, however obscure or odd. It’s a new spin on an old idea, intended to help us progress as it progresses.
It is the Library of Alexandria. It is the OED. It is the world. There are plenty of individuals trying to portray Wikipedia as an unofficial and inaccurate representation of odds and ends. They tend to be salesmen of traditional sources Britannica. Even folks at the OED. They’re right about one thing. It’s not perfect. But neither are they right to euphemistically refer to Wikipedia as rubbish.
Think of Wikipedia as one of the founding fathers of Web 2.0. It’s a little messy, but not any more so than its challengers when you think about it. And it’s forever in beta, and there it should remain.
Appropriately, all items here are referenced at Wikipedia.