The wikipedia article on Criticisms of Wikipedia
The comparison to the Encyclopædia Britannica runs throughout, and the issue of authority/reliability:
The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers have to ensure that their data is reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window. (Philip Bradley)
Now I don’t believe that printed publications are all that reliable, having read a bunch myself and even written a few, but it seems that there is another important difference between Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica. This is not a difference concerning the writing and writers, but a difference in the readers, or at least a difference in the tacit view of the readers the two encyclopaedia’s have. From the Wikipedia Criticisms article:
to the ordinary user, the turmoil and uncertainty that may lurk beneath the surface of a Wikipedia article are invisible. He or she arrives at a Wikipedia article via Google, perhaps, and sees that it is part of what claims to be an “encyclopedia”. This is a word that carries a powerful connotation of reliability. The typical user doesn’t know how conventional encyclopedias achieve reliability, only that they do. (Robert McHenry, former editor in chief EB)
Wikipedia’s detractors imply that readers are defenceless, passive – I imagine them arriving in the shining halls of Wikipedia like wide-eyed children stumbling first time into some emporer’s Palace. Like children they are easy prey for the court tricksters and schemers with their silver tongues, beautiful clothes and easy, cosmopolitan ways.
The view of the readers is made more explicit in this quote from the former editor in chief of EB:
The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him.
Again passivity, but the second theme here is clear – infection. Innocent children’s mind, polluted by wikipedia’s unsanitised intellectual bugs.
Do we believe that people are that stupid, that they are this weak? With the EB model where a cannon of knowledge is prepared centrally and distributed to a passive audience this model of the reader is appropriate. For Wikipedia, based on the idea of a community of dual writers-readers, it is not so clear that it is.