Wikipedia: Useful or Evil?

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In Is Wikipedia Becoming a Respectable Academic Source?, Lisa Spiro discusses the increased use of Wikipedia in academic writing. She began by finding the number of citings, and then determining how they were used.

"111 of the sources (66.5%) are what I call "straight citations"--citations of Wikipedia without commentary about it-while 56 (34.5%) comment on Wikipedia as a source, either positively or negatively. "----Spiro


She did a really good job of describing the many legitimate uses for wikipedia, as well as admitting its many shortcomings. One of the common uses she described, that I really hadn't considered, was for finding "information about contemporary culture or as a reflection of contemporary cultural opinion." In this capacity wikipedia is ideal in as a collection information compiled by non-expert writers (as well as some experts). Anytime one wishes to make a general claim about the feelings of society as a group, it's likely that the beliefs reflected on wikipedia will be pretty accurate. I haven't checked this, (but will after I type it), but it is likely that Jimi Hendrix's page will mention something about him being considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time. If I wanted to say something to that effect, (likely in an introduction to a research paper), it carries more weight (and is more accurate) to say that he is "widely recognized as....," or "considered by many to be...." than to just say "so-and-so, a music critic for some-magazine, claimed that Jimi Hendrix is..."

As much as wikipedia's collective nature can lead to inacuracy, making it less legitimate as a detailed source, its collective nature makes it more relevant as a record of society's general beliefs.

In There's no Wikipedia entry for 'moral responsibility' by Andrew Orlowski attacks wikipedia for several reason. The article is sparked by the libelling of John Seigenthaler, a former aide to Robert Kennedy on wikipedia. While this libelling is unfortunate, it goes to show that almost no one has any reason to look up information on John Seigenthaler.  

Orlowski argues that "Wikipedia has a long way to go to rid itself of the image that it's a massive, multiplayer shoot-em-up game, or MMORPG" I couldn't resist quoting this line, as it made me think. Is Orlowski somehow making fun of inacuracys on wikipedia by misusing the term MMORGP (massive multiplayer ONLINE ROLE PLAYING GAME)? Or did he just make a mistake? If it is a mistake, it would have been fixed within 18 seconds by some gamer had it been on wikipedia.


While, many of Orlowski's complaints are valid, he paints both sides of the issue only in black and white. He claimes that wikipedia "firmly puts the blame on the reader, for being so stupid as to take the words at face value." The problem with this argument is that any conscious reader is capable of assessing facts. It is true, that if someone changes Calvin Coolidge's birthday on wikipedia to June 27th, chances are no one will catch it. The reader is not really responsible for this error. However, if someone changes the date to February 31st, the reader should probably catch that. If a reader reads that "Walt Whitman later changed his last name to Disney after creating Mickey Mouse, and eventually died at the age of 124 in a freak accident while riding Space Mountain at Disneyworld." they really should be able to determine that some of these facts may require varification.

What it really comes down to though, is that wikipedia is the sort of collection of diverse knowledge that one might gather if they spent several life-times discussing thousands of topics with thousands of people. Some will disagree, some will make up outright lies, some will be mistaken, but it will still provide a general basis of knowledge for any subject, as encyclopdias are designed to do. Neither offer the necessary depth for any real analysis, but if you're just wondering "Who is so-and-so?" or "What is (something)? They can give you basic answers.   





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