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The emergence of an online encyclopedia of common people and organizations


These days private people and representatives of organizations use the Internet’s general (Google) or sometimes specialized (Pipl) search engines to find information about each other, with phone books and the yellow pages quickly becoming relics of the past. The leading online “encyclopedia of everything” Wikipedia currently functions as a central website where widely-scattered public personal and organizational information gets integrated by using a wiki. The resulting more or less coherent and comprehensive (illustrated) articles portray a valuable more objective outside-view on the more subjective about-texts on personal or organization websites.

But not everything gets included on Wikipedia: there are a lot of people and organizations that don’t get covered. For a person or organization to be included in an encyclopedic entry on Wikipedia,  a certain degree of notability must have been established.
It is therefore interesting that till now (apart from this 2010 proposition for the creation of an Inclupedia) there is still no serious contender to Wikipedia, that is, another large central online encyclopedia containing high quality user generated content allowing its vibrant community of amateur and professional users to include data about common non-famous people and organizations.

Of all online encyclopedias, the online wiki-based encyclopedia Citizendium is really trying to be a contender to Wikipedia by being different (We aren’t Wikipedia / We aren’t Citizendium). The notability principle of Wikipedia was considered undesirable with its currently overruled “maintainability principle”. It now states in its December 2010 guideline on inclusion (Article Inclusion Policy) there must be willingness of multiple users to write a strong article which helps a project gain importance. This (although different from my own radical inclusionist proposal in 2006) seems like a rather reasonable guideline, and quite open to common people and organizations for getting an encyclopedic article on Citizendium. Unfortunately the project has not yet sufficiently grown significantly enough to fulfill the role of a serious challenger with regard to Wikipedia’s central position.

No, these days personal and organizational data grows around profiles on social networking sites which have emerged from online chat rooms and forums of the past. Sites like Six DegreesLiveJournal, Blogspot, Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, Last.fm, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ in various degrees of ambition all endeavour(ed) to contribute to the creation of an online encyclopedia about common people and organizations by giving their users options to fill in their own personal and organization data in profiles and blogs. Unfortunately this data is rather subjective, created by the user him/herself and not tested against information others have about the user.

But there are ways in which users can contribute to gathering and structuring relatively more objective encyclopedia-like information about other common people or organizations. Tags (category names) and channels for example have become mainstreamed in many sites and allow users to share new topics or classify the scattered data on the site. On Facebook, for example, people or organizations can tag photos of people/organizations or quote other users on Facebook. These photos and quotes can then be added to the other user’s private profile which their contacts (”friends”) can view. Twitter allows users to re-post (”re-tweet”) other user’s (”followers”) microblogs (”tweets”), allowing more users to notice them. On LinkedIn one can write public recommendations about other people or organizations. Last.fm does have a wiki integrated into their site, allowing the community of users to write biographies about each musician that is listened to on the site: this allows last.fm to be the first to notice new upcoming acts.

Another aspect of social networking sites is that they allow you to link to other users. E.g. on LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook one is encouraged to link to all contacts you have, all users you know in real life plus ones you may know. The site Last.fm allows users to connect to “neighbours”, recommended contacts based on a shared music listening behaviour.

These social networking applications are helping to create an online common people/organization encyclopedia but they are not all publicly available, fragmented, and therefore not easily accessible for big mass audiences. Only people in organizations with resources can do such intelligence assessment, not yet common people or organizations.

So far, therefore, the creation of a central online encyclopedia of common people and organizations is still emerging, but in the end it will no doubt become a reality. In the near future Wikipedia may, by popular demand, become less strict with regard to their notability principle and become a true encyclopedia of everything.

Another probable trend of social networking sites will be in the direction Last.fm headed with social and musical data: tagging (photo-tagging, quoting) of people and organizations, the whole of your shared social behaviour (cf. Last.fm’s listening behaviour), creates “neighbours” (more than just “you may also know this or that person/organization” but people/organizations with whom you share certain selected profile(-related) data) and a co-created globally recognized wiki (”grwiki”? cf. Gravatar, the globally recognized avatar, or NNDB) about a person/organization.

But is an online encyclopedia of common people and organizations a desirable development? It has become an occupational hazard of popular people and organizations in mediagenic areas to be written and gossiped about, but what if common people and organizations get filed and scrutinized as well? What if the load of speculation and factual data about people and organizations are becoming an identity threat? The (de)publication of this web of personal and organizational data about and by our selves or others does change our perception on what should remain private and what should become public. What part of our personal or organizational history should be included or rather excluded from such an encyclopedia? Who decides on this inclusion and exclusion, the user him/herself or other users? Should a person or organization ignore or comply with its particular reigning political correctness when creating or censoring data? Do some people in corporate or governmental organizations have too much (control over) information about people and organizations? Does, for example, competitive intelligence not lean towards corporate espionage?
These questions are serious and pressing indeed and will need to be asked and acted upon if we are to prevent a life with too few privacy, too few secrets and surprises.

(PS: Most probably, the advent of the post-human entity will keep us on our toes, filling our lives with new exciting secrets and surprises)

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(manipulated photo by Reuters / Pawel Kopczynski of the Frankfurt SE on 9-9-2011)

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