Are you enjoying Wikipedia Week yet at MediaShift? The more time I spend looking at Wikipedia, delving into its arcane rules and hearing from its various supporters and detractors, the more it feels like a religious sect. People have very strong views on the community-generated free online encyclopedia, ranging from calling it a revolution in collective wisdom to a place where “people who can’t write and who can’t edit and who can’t do research are running things.”
I’m starting to think the people who edit Wikipedia are engaging in some kind of massive multiplayer game, where they speak their own language, gain power by playing the game the longest — with everyone fighting to be the arbiter of all human knowledge.
So it’s not too surprising that my question to you — how much do you trust Wikipedia? — was answered with fervor on both sides. Right out of the gate, Mobius, who blogs at Orthodox Anarchist, sent a link to Jason Scott’s speech, The Great Failure of Wikipedia — required listening or reading for the Wikipedia negativist.
“Ought to spike a giant nail in the collaborative coffin,” Mobius wrote.
Not so fast, said David Gerard, a longtime Wikipedia administrator.
“Mr. Scott really doesn’t get the idea of collaboration without ego as motivation,” wrote Gerard. “Fortunately, Wikipedia works in practice even if it can’t possibly work in theory. Note that the German Wikipedia is onto its third DVD edition so far — that’s real consumers paying 10 euros of real money for a DVD–ROM of text produced by wiki collaboration. Anyone claiming they’ve mathematically proved it can’t possibly work will need to come up with increasingly contrived redefinitions of ‘work.’”
Gerard also has a solution for linking to particular Wikipedia entries that could degrade in quality — just link to one particular revision in the history that you trust. Activist and educator Phil Shapiro also came to the defense of Wikipedia, calling it a “major accomplishment of humankind.”
“Wikipedia is worth linking to,” Shapiro wrote. “The Wikipedia has taught us what is possible. People who look askance at the Wikipedia are the same people who look askance at the possible. ‘Informal knowledge’ can sometimes even be stronger — more complete — than formal knowledge.”
Todd Zeigler, who blogs at the Bivings Report, tells the negativists to stop complaining and start improving Wikipedia if they are tired of seeing errors.
“Whatever you think of it, Wikipedia is hugely influential,” Zeigler writes. “It is the 17th most visited site on the Inernet and is the number one search result for lots of obscure/technical terms. I actually spend time helping to edit entries when I think they are inaccurate/need clarification. Everyone who cares about the concept of a collaborative encyclopedia should as well. Contributing is more effective than complaining about it. Wikipedia isn’t going anywhere. And it matters even if you think it is flawed.”
Wikipedia Use Discouraged at Schools
But still, the negativists pressed on, especially those in education who feel that Wikipedia is not welcome in schools, where students should be using more solid resource materials.
“We are no longer allowed to use Wikipedia at our high school because some guy went on and got some totally bogus information from it,” wrote RifleAvenger. “I think that information should come from a certified valid source, otherwise it may be an opinion.”
Dr. S Jones concurs, saying that Wikipedia is discouraged where he/she teaches.
“The quality of the entries in Wikipedia has significantly deteriorated in the past couple of years,” Jones writes. “Students who use it have points deducted immediately for demonstrating gullibility and a lack of real curiosity. The quality of writing and research on Wikipedia is appalling.”
Some of you felt that science articles on Wikipedia were more trustworthy than political or social entries, while others felt that Nature magazine’s comparison of Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Britannica showed Wikipedia to be less accurate.
One Wikipedian FayssalF believes that no matter its current problems, Wikipedia could well improve in the future.
“One can visit, as an example, the last debate at the Islamofascism discussion page and realize how stuff works,” FayssalF wrote. “There are many issues involved; copyrights, neutrality (NPOV) and accuracy. I believe that with the launch of Version 1.0 (see also stable versions’ project) things will get much better.”
That’s possible, but for now, we’re stuck with an imperfect implementation that is far from being a neutral, accurate encyclopedia. I think Doug Lockwood summed up the situation perfectly.
“Wikipedia is a remarkable source of information,” he wrote. “Do I trust it as a source for neutral information? Absolutely not. After all, how much can you trust any website? Everyone has an agenda, everyone has a viewpoint, and any source of information should be viewed with a critical eye. There is no such thing as a neutral information source.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the reader to determine the validity of the information being presented. That does not remove the moral obligation of the author to provide the most valid information possible, of course. Certainly a web writer should only present links to sources they believe are worthwhile and support their stories or opinions. But the reader has to realize that anything they read was written from someone else’s viewpoint.”