Home » Uncategorized » Fave Wikis: Williams College

Fave Wikis: Williams College

In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I have to fess up to having attended Williams. However, the many good times and incredible things I learned there are not the reason for it reaching Fave Wiki status. No, attending Williams only first brought me to this page.

What I think this page illustrates very well is a transformative element of the whole explosion of Wikipedia. Prior to Wikipedia, encyclopedias were clearly a very top-down operation. During that period, it wasn’t just that encyclopedias were in control of what was said about any specific subject, but they were also gatekeepers to what subjects would merit articles and even be present in encyclopedias. But, they had to limit themselves somehow as printing more articles had real costs associated with it. You gotta pay the additional writers and fact-checkers to do the initial work and then are faced with paying for extra paper and larger bindings. This means that at a certain point the marginal cost of adding another article to the encyclopedia would reach a level where the marginal benefit of having that article present would lead the encyclopedia publisher to leave out an article. Damn economics!!!

Wikipedia does not have the same marginal cost structure as any encyclopedia, and therefore has been able to grow much, much, much larger than any previous encyclopedias in history. Now, keeping within the context of the Williams article, many encyclopedias would include articles about Williams College. Wikipedia’s existence did not make the first encyclopedic article about the college come into existence. However, the difference in cost structures and restraints between books and Wikipedia also affects what makes it into articles.

And this is what originally drew me to this page in Wikipedia. The information found in the article is vastly more diverse and interesting than anyone would expect from Britannica. Things like the history of the school, descriptions of the academic structure of the school and (maybe) a brief list of famous alumni would, of course, be in a traditional encyclopedia. However, the very recent history of the school, discussion of temporal issues like rankings and sports teams, detailed lists of famous alumni broken-down by industry, and coverage of any issue important to the Williams community (but not necessarily the larger community of encyclopedia editors) are all included here. Britannica might get up to speed enough to select the same general categories of information from each college it features. But, it would probably not pick up on many of the facets of the schools that make them unique, like Williams’ initiative to teach Oxford-style Tutorials. This is central to the Williams academic experience, and anyone who has gone through that process knows it deserves a spot on the school’s Wikipedia page. Britannica would need to exponentially increase their research staff to pick up on such subjects, yet another cost-prohibitive measure.

Switching from a top-down model of content creation and editing to one that is bottom-up is Web 2.0 101. Let the consumers of the material determine what is important enough to feature. This general model is so common online that I feel it is assumed in tech circles. Even CNN.com and nytimes.com prominently feature their “Most Emailed” and “Most Read” articles. They haven’t replaced their front page editorial teams with these little widgets, but they clearly reveal a lot about the nature of these sites’ readers. CNN.com regularly features serious news articles on their front page, but the Most Popular Articles are commonly tabloid-y to the max (today features “Marge Simpson to Grace Cover of Playboy” and “Skunk with Head Caught in Jar”). Both of these approaches to editorial promotion have value in my mind, and such hybrid editorial models will be at the core of the most respected and widely-consumed news outlets of the coming years (probably already are actually).

So, the page about Williams is a favorite of mine because it encapsulates for me personally just what is great about information taken from Wikipedia. Information has value not because it is observed by an editor sitting at a desk. Any and all information gains its value simply by being of value to a consumer of information on any given subject. The traditional cost structures of traditional media companies never allowed this value to outweigh their very real costs of production, but thankfully we live in a much more rich and value-driven media and information landscape. Follow value instead of avoiding costs. It sounds so right.