Will Wikipedia’s maturing necessitate policy changes?

There is an interesting article by Larry Sanger at Kuro5hin called Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism. Sanger argues that as long as Wikipedia does not provide for recognizing expertise in a formal way, few serious experts in specific fields will bother contributing articles, since any fool with an agenda can screw them up, necessitating much maintenance.
I agree that some of the policies of Wikipedia need to come up for revision. I used to be a relatively frequent contributor to Wikipedia myself, but lately I have spent less time editing there. The reason is simple – when Wikipedia was new and growing, there was need for a lot of “quick writing” on many topics. I am reasonably eclectic in my knowledge and can quickly write short stubs, sometimes backed up with some Web research – so I started many articles with what I knew. For example, I started articles on Martin Heidegger and Primo Levi, people I had a reasonably educated person’s knowledge about. For some articles, like Fridtjof Nansen, I knew more, because I am Norwegian and had recently read Farthest North, his book about trying to reach the North Pole. That was fine for an initial posting, to plug an obvious lexicographical gap. As time went by, each article grew to a point where further improvements require both commitment and more specialized knowledge. The article on Heidegger was pretty soon taken over by some people with more knowledge of Heidegger’s philosophy, and is now a point where I certainly can’t add anything. The same has not happened to the article on Primo Levi, but eventually it will. And for Fridtjof Nansen, quite a bit of my text is still in there.
I think this is a natural evolution: As the content of each article becomes deeper, the lay person’s role shifts to language, formatting and readibility editing. I suspect that one reason topic experts are reluctant to write in the Wikipedia is that an encyclopædia is not written for other topic experts – that’s easy – but for someone with a certain level of general knowledge. Writing popular science or popularized explanations of philosophy or economics is hard – witness the popularity of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophies World, which is basic popularized textbook in philosophy masquerading as a rather trite novel. Anyone who can explain general realitivity for laypeople (myself included) will have an audience – but if you can do it, doing it in Wikipedia does neither pecuniary nor academic rewards bring. As Mark Twain said, “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
As Wikipedia matures, it is pretty clear to me that some sort of authorization process needs to occur – perhaps in the form of a fork, as argued by Sanger. I suspect the time to fork still is a little early. Wikipedia was formed to generate raw material for Nupedia, a properly reviewed encyclopædia on the Web. Nupedia turned out to be too slow a process, and Wikipedia took off. Perhaps we now are beginning to have enough grist for a more standard lexicographical process – and perhaps it is time to impose a little bit more structure and qualification, both from the content and presentation side?
In the meantime, I will continue to use the Wikipedia as my first lookup for overview knowledge. I will continue to fix obvious errors and extend articles where I can do so easily. I don’t think I will take deep responsibility for particular areas – but I am sure someone else will.
The fact that Wikipedia is maturing and needs to evolve also in its policies does not change the fact that it is one of the most exciting Web projects ever – a communally written, free, dynamic knowledge store of surprisingly high quality. Go ‘pedia!

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