Ivor Tossell's web column in the Review section of The Globe and Mail last Friday contained a fascinating analysis of Wikipedia. I've excerpted a section below.
Wikipedia readers are more likely to carefully groom an article like the gigantic committee they are, bold-facing honorifics, debating the neutrality of word choices, and slowly grinding the article down to a version that everyone in the world can agree on. Some strike off and write new articles on related topics, which get vetted for themselves as readers find them. And so the Wiki grows. It's a fascinating process to watch, like a giant human ant farm.
The model has its limits. Nothing separates users who know what they're talking about. The same populist spirit that keeps the Wiki open to you and me also alienates academics, who see no need for their work to be peer-reviewed by the hoi polloi. And if you deny expertise and demand consensus, what you're left with is going to be shallow. The upshot is that the Wikipedia will tell you the first thing about everything, but the last word on nothing.
But instead of deep, the Wikipedia goes very, ery broad. Given the chance, people will write about what they know, and as it happens, everyone is an expert on their own lives. So the space in between major articles gets stuffed with the details of modern life: tales of individual floors of residences at small colleges, profiles of anyone who has enjoyed 15 minutes of fame, assorted geographic minutiae, and a not-to-be-missed cultural history of the Star Wars v. Star Trek debate.
Thsi makes the Wiki the ultimate conversationalist: well-read, interested in everything, apolitical and completely on top of today's newspaper. It works best as a museum of artifacts, woven together with hyperlinks to form a user's guide to our culture. That's its real value.