Comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopadia Britannica and other much more established works, as well as other online encyclopaedias (encyclopaediae?) seems to be in vogue at the moment, with reviews and articles in Focus Magazine, The Guardian, The Gadget Show, and The Register.
Speaking as a student and a regular user of Wikipedia I can name three qualities that make it extremely worthwhile compared to other publications:
It is free.
It is detailed.
It is comprehensive and massive.
Although there have been many criticisms of the project, and recently a number of important people have left the organisation, I haven’t seen much evidence of the graffito and vandalism that has earned Wikipedia criticism. I can only assume that this is because of the tireless efforts of many nameless volunteers who constantly monitor and repair such instances.
I do sometimes come across labels like “The Neutrality of this Article is Disputed”, which is quite reassuring: usually authoritative publications will not concede any bias or possibility of prejudice on the part of their writers, and it is refreshing to find a source that admits its own flaws.
However like all utopian dreams there are generally quite a few blemishes when the project is put into practice. It is sad that people are vandalising and abusing Wikipedia. Jason Scott explains why Wikipedia has started to judder recently here at archive.org.
Fortunately although Wikipedia may be consigned to some kind of back-seat, there is a future for the model: Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger has set up The Digital Universe:
"What makes people enthusiastic about contributing to Wikipedia is not that anyone can participate, it's that it's easy for the people who do to participate, and that they get instant feedback from in the community," he says. "Those features that make Wikipedia compelling can be replicated in a system that is managed by experts. The whole idea is to teach experts the Wikipedia magic."
His conception seems to be pretty close to an ideal for an online encyclopaedia, carrying forward the best aspects of Wikipedia but putting it into the hands of people “qualified” to do the job. It seems a bit sad that the anarchic nature of Wikipedia hasn’t played out as well as it might have done, and all because of the most irritating and immature elements of society (e.g. Radio One…), but I’m reassured that there will be a replacement if Wikipedia does go the way of the dodo, which it might still manage to avoid.