An old boss once told me, “Don’t rely on Wikipedia. Tell your writers not to do their research through it!” I vigorously nodded like a good book editor. “Oh, I agree!”
As part of my job, I hired writers to create lessons for students preparing for their statewide exams. (It’s more interesting than it sounds.) If you recall, each state must pass these exams in order to be given government funds in accordance with President Bush’s No Child Left Behind law. A school’s funding is directly linked to these test results. If the testing company doesn’t get the facts correct, students are left behind, literally and figuratively. It was a lot of responsibility, so avoiding Wikipedia made sense—and still does in most educational contexts, when there is a lot at stake.
But I need to be critical with any source and Wikipedia—one of the largest online reference Web sites on the Web—is just one among many that I use. The fact is, people make mistakes, period, so I try to check multiple sources. Wikipedia, created in 2001, increased the popularity of “user-generated content” before anyone knew what the word really meant. According to the Wikipedia’s site, “With rare exceptions, its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the Internet, simply by clicking the edit this page link.”
I admit I have an ingrained suspicion of anything not printed (is everyone an editor now?), but the Web is changing. Wikipedia is unique because it’s constantly self-correcting and allows everyone to participate. The beauty in it is that it brings knowledge to a more public forum—and anticipates that citizens will write collaboratively. Creating and editing knowledge together can be a slippery slope, and for this very reason, it will not always be reliable. But unlike a book, magazine, or newspaper, we also don’t have to wait for the next printing or letter to the editor to correct that typo or fix that fact. As a user, you can alter the page based on your expertise—and you can see what others know (or don’t know) about any given topic. It’s like a virtual town green with multiple parties talking to each other. Eventually the crowd comes up with the right answer.
Increasingly there is a call for accountability—and we’re experiencing it through a more democratic, less elitist process. Wikipedia may run into problems—facts are not always correct and hacking is not unusual—but consider that forty-six million users are using it, writing on it, fixing errors, asking questions, and creating a virtual community of writers, editors, and knowledge seekers. This kind of worldwide participation is astounding. In The Wisdom of Crowds Dave Surowiecki (yes, he’s on Wikipedia), argues that “Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” Essentially, if certain conditions are met, a collective brain is better than one expert. (You’ll need to read the book.)
Wikipedia often comes in handy when you want to hear the latest update on a news topic. Granted, I still think everyone will continue to rely on newspapers on and offline, but during the Virginia Tech shootings, several local newspapers commented on how quickly and well done the Wikipedia page was updated. If you followed the story, you might agree.
But as a professor recently pointed out to me, unlike a Wikipedia article, a book or journal article has usually been thoroughly researched, edited, and peer reviewed—that way, there is accountability. She tells her students flat out that she’s “not impressed by quotes from Wikipedia in their papers” and actively discourages it. She feels students are being lazy. Yet she also concedes that some topics are thoroughly researched; occasionally she has even been impressed! Again, perhaps it’s about being critical and using multiple sources, not just one.
We’ll always have books, newspapers, and multiple kinds of periodicals (though does anyone use an actual encyclopedia anymore?); universities and scholars; and writers, reporters, and hopefully, editors of all kinds! I will never totally rely on Wikipedia. I don’t know anyone who does. But it’s great to turn to a Web site and know that I’m part of a global knowledge community. And I must admit, “Wikipedia” is a pretty catchy name.
Related chit chat: Do You Use Wikipedia?