Many things has been said about wikipedia, good ones, and bad ones. The fight is huge, between those who still believe in content written by experts, and those who say that the quality of wikipedia is at the same level as any other encyclopedia. The comparison made by Nature between wikipedia and encyclopaedia Brittanica, which said that levels were equivalent, has not calmed down the battle between pros and cons of the user generated model of wikipedia.
Many other interesting analysis can be made about wikipedia. It is not true that anyone can contribute: there are teams of people, who are usually experts in one field, who control any change on many articles, and prevent a lot of changes to happen. Wikipedia is not a place where everyone is free to do whatever he wants. There is a strong, albeit secret, governance.
However, wikipedia is a very innovative encyclopeadia, not because it is user generated content, but for at least four other reasons.
The first innovation in wikipedia is the “view history” tab (link is on the article about wikipedia). All changes made to an article are kept. This tab allows not only to see how many changes were performed, and when, but also to compare two different versions of the article. It also allows to roll back to a previous version of an article, a very interesting feature if any deliquency activity was performed on any article. But the innovation is there: it is possible to understand the history of the article.
The second innovation is another very important tab : “discussion“. Very often, specially in any collaborative work, shared intentions are not obvious. There always a need for a space where people can discuss about the result, before taking any decision. This is the place where it can be done. It id also the place where apprentice writers should start, before changing the core article itself.
The third innovation is about meta sentences, to be found at the beginning or inside any article, such as : “This article does not cite any references or sources.”, “Please help improve this article by expanding it“, “This article may require copy editing for grammar, style, cohesion, tone or spelling“, or, much more fundamental “The neutrality of this article is disputed“.
The fourth one is about different languages. On most articles, on the left side, one can find the same article in other wikipedia. It is not a translation, it is the same topic. The first side effect is that wikipedia can be used as a tranlation tool. I was doing a conference in front of Italian people, and I had to explain the long tail principle. I started from the entry in the English wikipedia, and fortunatly Italian was on the the languages, and by clicking on the link, I was able to explain what long tail was in Italian.
As of june 2009, there are 272 different wikipedia. It is the very first time in mankind that regional, or local languages have their own encyclopaedia in their own language which is not a translation from an occidental one. I think we see only the beginning of the impact it may have on local cultures.
Wikipedia is an encyclopeadia where the history and the creation process of any article is visible, where articles contain information about their quality, which is available in 272 languages.
There lays its innovation.