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Confessions of a journo-elitist

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper ponders whether the Wikipedification of the future is inevitable--and what that may mean.

If he decided to call it quits tomorrow, Jimmy Wales could still take huge satisfaction knowing that he helped pioneer a very 21st century kind of idea.

To be accurate, Wales did not invent the concept of the wiki. That honor went to Ward Cunningham, who came up with the technology and then used it on his company's Web site in the mid-1990s.

But it was the launch of Wikipedia in 2001 that proved the viability of a radical notion: a community of strangers could and would work together to safeguard the integrity of an open-source online encyclopedia.

Can an open-source zine rise to the level of excellence found in proven publications like Sports Illustrated? Perhaps, but nobody yet knows the answer.

"When I first did Wikipedia, I couldn't sleep at night," Wales said on a visit to CNET earlier this week. "I thought people would trash it."

They didn't. Outside of the occasional jerk, most folks were ready to contribute their knowledge and fact-check in a responsible, collaborative way. And today, Wikipedia houses more than 4.6 million articles in more than 100 languages.

We can debate the significance of so-called social-networking software. Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.com may be the flavor of the month, but what about a decade from now? Wikipedia and its offshoots won't face that question. What with old-media and even new-media outfits forced to scramble to remain relevant because of accelerating technology shifts, the Wikinauts appear uniquely set to benefit from the open-source zeitgeist that informs the way that many, if not most, of us think about the collection and use of content.

If anything, the Wikipedification of the world is only in its infancy--and that's either potentially very good or very troubling. The answer depends upon where you're coming from.

Clearly, Wales and his colleagues have tapped into the spirit of the times. They have since pushed into related areas, such as and community Web sites. Opening up its pages to one and all, the Wiki approach is profoundly democratic.

Wales and his confederates have a model that scales nicely. So nicely, in fact, that there's little to stop them from creating the equivalent of an Internet magazine rack with contributed news and opinions.

More power to them. You have to love the potential of a platform that promotes more diversity. But still, I have lingering doubts about the outcome.

Specifically, I worry about the inevitable trade-offs that define life on the Internet. Will quality take a backseat to superficiality? You see this all the time in the blogosphere.

I've accumulated my A list of favorite blogs over the years. But I first had to dodge all the half-baked, ungrammatical blowhards who contribute much of the noise that passes for informed comment on the Internet.

Can an open-source zine rise to the level of excellence found in proven publications like Sports Illustrated? Perhaps, but nobody yet knows the answer. The early evidence suggests that it's going to be a long haul.

The sloppy observations of an armchair sports fan fail to even remotely come close to the delicious insights of a pro like Frank Deford.

I can hear the catcalls already. "Elitist!" OK, I plead guilty--but with an explanation. Everyone is entitled to a voice, but that doesn't mean that all voices are equal. The fun is in striving to reach the top. The danger is that we'll instead remain satisfied with mediocrity.