The internet is a fantastic source of information, and if searching for nearly any topic on Google on the first page (and often, the first result) is an article on the subject from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia may not have pioneered the wiki model, in which anyone with a connection is allowed to contribute to the body of knowledge, but it’s professed goal of containing the sum of human knowledge and releasing it free of charge is certainly how most of the public knows about the concept of rapid and open editing. In just a few short years, Wikipedia has grown to 2,665,148 articles covering the obvious and the obscure. More and more people turn to the encyclopedia for research and information; and therein lies the sense of unease among corners of the populace.
The camps of those critical of Wikipedia are varied and consist of core issues with both the Wiki philosophy in theory, as well as its application and practice on Wikipedia. On one hand, there are those who protest that Wikipedia’s motto is disengenous; some articles or protected or locked from editing by anonymous peers or by certain users; it’s not the free-for-all described by the media, and it is not the encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
On the other hand, some believe that Wikipedia is still too permissive in allowing most editors to edit topics. After Wikipedia was blasted in the media for several inaccuracies that remained on pages for weeks or months (such as libel suggesting one man was investigated in the JFK assassination), some have suggested that the open model of Wikipedia is not the way to write a quality encyclopedia. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger went off and created Citizendium, where editors must use their real name and there is oversight by experts in the field.
Finally there are those such as Andrew Keen, whose general distrust of Web 2.0 and internet sites which support user-generated content extends to Wikipedia’s support of a “cult of the amateur”. He laments that sites such as Wikipedia and YouTube are what happen “when ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule” (1). Keen is following in the footsteps of American Federalists from the United States’ founding days, arguing that the people are in general, likely to make the bad decisions together; witness how the War in Iraq and Britney Spears were embraced, Keen states. The greatest flaw with Wikipedia, he says, is that it opens up truth to relativism and influence by whoever can push their agenda first. This is a clear problem with the Wiki philosophy; while some controversial topics such as George W. Bush’s bio on Wikipedia may be fairly well-policed and polished, nationalist subjects such as the Turkish-Armenian allegations of genocide are much more nebulous and prone to dedicated single-minded manipulation by entire groups who stand to lose or gain. Keen does have a point; Wikipedia makes the truth much more relative.
Beyond this, however, Keen and similar Wikipedia detractors fall off the mark. Keen asserts that Wikipedia and similar projects make the truth subjective; but any rational person with a passing knowledge of history knows that “what is truth” has been argued long before the internet. Take two history textbooks published 50 or 60 years apart and see how they treat topics like slavery, civil rights, and American colonization; the truth is and always shall be very much under debate. Wikipedia actually brings out that debate into a public setting, which is much more constructive to getting to a common ground about the issue than is writing a book or using traditional media.
The accuracy and scope of Wikipedia is only as good as its members. There are vast piles of what is termed “cruft” on Wikipedia, from dozen-page articles on fictional weapons from a series of manga novels to exhaustive lists of known homosexuals, and due to the size of Wikipedia not all content not suitable for inclusion can be removed or merged elsewhere. Quantity is Wikipedia’s strong suit, not quality; only 1 in more than 1000 wikipedia article is “Featured”, meaning it has been checked against a set of criteria including factual accuracy, depth of information, reliable sourcing, and well-written prose. But Wikipedia is always going to be a work in progress, and so is always in a state of improvement; as long as there are dedicated editors, there is no deadline for it to fill in critical gaps and expand.
While it has its failures, Wikipedia should be recognized as an excellent starting point for information. The open nature of its editing means that it can cover current events and breaking news faster than any traditional news outlet. The relatively inclusive nature of its content guidelines means that readers can find exhaustively detailed and informative articles on video games, movies, and albums that would never be found in a traditional encyclopedia. If there’s a spelling error in Britannica, it’s not easily fixed; if there’s a spelling error on Wikipedia, it can be corrected in seconds. By using a mixture of both traditional and web-based resources, one can easily find more information and be more informed–and isn’t knowledge important?
Wikipedia will never be perfect; even its founders and most ardent supports accept this. But as the old adage goes, “nobody is perfect”; at least on Wikipedia there are many thousands spending their free time to build up the sum of human knowledge and make it better.