I think the potential benefits of the long tail, the limitless space by which to accumulate information, and the organic nature of Wikipedia make it formidable resource for storing and gathering information. But should we trust Wikipedia over an expert-led encyclopedia like the standard-bearer, Britannica? Should students be allowed to use Wikipedia as a primary source for their papers? Is the potential of the tragedy of the commons too big a cross to bear for the sake of disseminating information? Is anonymous posting on Wikipedia a gateway to misrepresentation? Finally, is there reason to believe that there may be an inadvertent bias toward white, European-descendent males? Probably, no, no, not quite, and not sure.
On the issue of trust, I favor timeliness over institutions. I will admit that like newspapers and some books, Wikipedia can be prone to errors, but as Nature magazine found, so could Encyclopedia Britannica. I would venture to guess that particularly for more popular articles at least, Wikipedia has not only the ability to correct them, but have anyone come in and make the correction themselves. The group monitoring that each category undergoes ensures that there isn’t a kind of stop the presses moment or worse an acceptance of the error after its too late to recall them (something that may occur with a print reference). So why can’t students use Wikipedia as an original source?
My belief is that information is most constructive when it is static. Wikipedia is a great resource for general timely overviews, but when formulating an idea, static information provides the sturdiest foundation for critical thinking. This can be particularly important when it comes to the descent by a minority view. Even if this minority viewpoint is not accepted as correct, having the ‘mistakes,’ ‘visible,’ means that other can learn from it. Using Wikipedia as the primary or sole source would be akin to believing that the first item that comes up from every term you type in a search engine will be exactly the item you need. The act of rejecting a premise is as important as accepting one.
The story of John Seigenthaler is that often cited cautionary tale of the limits of Wikipedia and additional stories of the possible M15 mole SlimVirgin, EssJay, and Vandalism on Wikipedia Watch, if true, represents a disturbing vulnerability to Wikipedia’s open approach. That said, the Britannica makes mistakes a 12-year old can find, textbooks can tell half truths or outright lies, ‘journalists‘ can make up stories out of thin air. Wikipedia has demonstrated a willingness to refine their process to mitigate the possibility of the tragedy of the commons just as Britannica, modern textbooks, and MSM eventually corrected their own vulnerabilities. The advent of WikiScanner, also goes a long way toward mitigating ‘foul play’ on the playground of the ‘people’s encyclopedia,’ while many textbooks have articles without attribution and newspapers are still allowed to print articles with, ‘sources close to . . .’
The last question was first brought to my attention at Antonella Weyler’s post last week about the relative homogeneity of Wikipedia authors.
If so, does the fact that the 83% of contributors are men, mostly white, put Wikipedia’s “representativeness” in check? Who is expressing the knowledge and experiences of the ones who have no access to internet: 93% of the population in African, 80% in Asia, 75% in the Middle East, and 70% in Latin and Caribbean American? Is Wikipedia articles biased by a limited perspective?
This might simply be an access issue but again, the over-representation of white mostly male techno-class isn’t unusual to the web generally but the same argument can be true for the gender inequity of collage professors or racial equity in media.
When it comes down to it, many of the issues with Wikipedia seem to be issues of scale and access. If it were possible for Britannica to have over 32,000 (as one report has it for Wikipedia) contributors to their English language version, would people be criticizing them too? If Britannica could manufacture and distribute its volumes for free, would people criticize that Britannica is too accessible?