Blog Topic 7: The Benevolent Wiki (?)

In Uncategorized on November 3, 2010 at 1:54 am

I have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica (1998) lined up on my hall bookshelf — along with my equally infrequently used Remington 5 (1935), they are my best antique finds yet ($30 for the set!). While I love having the knowledge that thousands of years of amassed human wisdom are balanced precipitously on one of my shelves, I have probably cracked the things open five times since I bought them two years ago. Are they impeccably composed? Yes. Is the writing stellar? Yes. Do they offer answers and insight into the things I need/want to know on a daily basis? Not so much. I will I could claim the type of intellectualism that would be required to have all of my musings fleshed out by Britannica. But, alas…Wes Anderson and Zooey Glass will always be trumped by protozoa and phalanges in the glossy pages of those leather-bound books.

For the first time this semester, I didn’t have to spend a great deal of time ruminating to solidify my response to a blog prompt — when faced with the choice between Wikipedia (circa today) and Encyclopedia Britannica (circa I-have-to-pay-to-view-it-online-and-figure-out-what-the-circa-is?!), I choose Wikipedia. And surprisingly, I don’t feel like I am being a traitor to the traditional books that I so love by espousing this opinion.

At 3.4 million articles, it’s not hard to justify the choice based on quantity of information. But quality is, admittedly, another thing entirely. So in order to justify my choice, I feel than I need not focus on reinforcing the utility and usefulness of Wikipedia, but rather refuting its naysayers.


After watching Jimmy Wales’ video from the TED Conference and exploring competing products and services, I still find good old Wikipedia most useful in aiding in fleshing out my opinions for the purpose of this post. Which is kind of the point. I needed a quick, logically organized conduit for jump-starting my thoughts on the subject of Wikipedia. Taking the knowledge gleaned for the disparate links and articles I read and mashing them together to form something coherent would be like doing the same thing with Play-doh — the colors are not going to meld to create something new and beautiful; instead I’d be left with a grotesque-looking blob of warm crap in a thousand colored sections. And such a blob is something that is no more attractive in the linguistic form of a blog post than it is in a toddler’s sticky hand.

One of the claims cited in the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia revolved around criticisms of writing being Wikipedia’s “achilles’ heel,” as “committees rarely write well.” While I feel that some Wikipedia entries are surprisingly eloquent, I agree that the majority lack stylistic cohesion and flow, particularly the longer articles. But the more I think about this, the more I think it could actually be a good thing. First let me lay down a basic premise of this entire diatribe: I believe the function of Wikipedia and the function of a publication like Britannica are as inherently different as night and day. They both end in -pedia and the similarity ends there. And that’s not a bad thing! While I would discourage the use of Wikipedia as a citable source for serious hard research, it is the single most wonderful way to obtain a general understanding or relatively nuanced overview of a topic that in other publications might be unapproachable from a novice’s perspective.

This being said, the benefit of Wikipedia being poorly written in comparison to more traditional encyclopedias is that this weakness serves as a natural discouragement to those attempting to misuse Wikipedia and turn it into a serious hard research source or, even worse, those who are lazy and want to plagiarize (But how can you steal what is public domain? This is an interesting question that brings up a new issue — will students try to claim fair-use of Wikipedia in projects and papers due to the fact that in theory, they share ownership and authorship? Hmm…). If it’s poorly written, it doesn’t lend itself as well to being the conduit for laziness that some people would have you believe. Just as perfect papers turned in by C students set off alarms in teachers’ heads, poorly composed or unsubstantiated research turned in by serious academics or students of higher education should set off alarms in the heads of their reviewers and peers.

People who proclaim vitriolic derision for Wikipedia’s “unreliability” and “lack of sources” need to get over themselves a wee bit for one reason, and one reason alone: If they don’t like it, they can find another, more appropriate source. While I agree that the infrastructure is prone to certain kinds of flaws, it serves its purpose well overall, and those who expect perfection should look elsewhere. No one is forcing or even encouraging them to view Wikipedia as the Ultimate Deity of Publications Ending in -Pedia. Is this a somewhat simplistic, black-and-white viewpoint? Yes. Are there legitimate argument for Wikipedia’s lack of legitimacy? Sure. But if you want stalwart sources, get on JStor or consult the New York Times. But keep in mind what Tyler Cowen said: novel results are over-reported in journal articles, and relevant information is omitted from news reports.

There are innumerable other negative comments on Wikipedia I could spend my time trying to refute with my own opinions (Dartmouth’s repudiation of the claim that anonymous users submit sub-par contributions, the considerations left out by the Wall Street Journal when they published a doomsday article illustrating the striking decline in contributors, etc.). And there are a million things I love about Wikipedia that I could spend hours on. Today alone, I used Wikipedia to query Farm Sanctuary, Kazuo Isiguro, the Cort Theatre,  the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, UGG Australia, and sloth bears, none of which can be found in the pages of my Britannicas. Were they perfect assemblages of flawless informational brilliance? Perhaps not. But they told me what I needed to know, and I left feeling more informed than I was when I arrived.

As for my biggest gripe — at the end of the day, all things considered, I agree with Frank Ahrens: Wikipedia’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. It is being written from a very specific and biased standpoint. Not so much the standpoint of its top contributors and editors or of Jimmy Wales (criticisms aside), but from the standpoint of the times — the zeitgeist of the early 21st century. But the beauty of it is this: In fifty years, the zeitgeist will have changed, and if the trends of the past decade hold true, Wikipedia will have changed with it. Wikipedia may be a mirror reflecting us back at ourselves. But it’s a mirror that’s won’t end up abandoned in someone’s attic, reflecting remnants of what we were as opposed to who we’ve become.

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