Jan 27, 2009, 11:51AM

The Duopoly of Information

The self-feeding machine of Google and Wikipedia.

Nick Carr wrote last week about the gradual centralization of information on the Web. Basically, he says, you have three nodes of power: the Web as a whole; Wikipedia, which stores information; and Google, which searches that information. Carr is unsure whether that is a good thing:

What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service…Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia—and I admit there's much to adore—you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing.

Carr has a point. It's dangerous for information to be controlled by a single source if that source has an agenda and is intolerant of opposing views. The fact is, though, that the gradual collection of Web-accessible information (as opposed to academic or other peer-reviewed information) on sites like Wikipedia is simply the result of a natural human reluctance to trust what we don't know.

Wikipedia and Google didn't set out to conquer the Web-information world. On the contrary, they were companies that noted a Demand—fast, reliable information—and sought to create a Supply.

Carr notes that "It's hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result."

That is true. As more people click on Google links to Wikipedia, regardless of the link's accuracy, the link itself will become more popular and therefore more people will assume it is accurate. But what also is true is that most people recognize the limitations of an information source like Wikipedia. High school teachers don't accept Wikipedia as a source, nor would an academic journal rely on a Google search.

In the hierarchy of information, Wikipedia should not be in the top tier. That space should be reserved for books and major pieces of academic research. Just below that could be print newspapers and weekly magazines, which can occasionally prove fallible. Below that, perhaps, is where Wikipedia belongs. Less reliable than a library, but more knowledgeable than the guy you're talking to at the bar.

So to answer Carr's question: I do believe that the centralization of information on the internet is a good thing. The web continues to be an enormous, incredibly diverse source of information. Centralization does not, in the case of Wikipedia and Google, limit diversity or stifle choice. It simply makes it easier for us to navigate an otherwise unwieldy trove of facts and opinions.

  • I agree that "fundamental failure" is too strong. The extent to which we rely on Wikipedia and Google is kind of remarkable, but we shouldn't forget that the quantity of information they make available is remarkable, too. What should be said is that internet users need to be responsible for helping to improve the services they use.

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