I’ve been thinking about Wikipedia lately.
Last fall I did a cool lesson with my students; together we edited The Charlotte’s Web entry (just the plot section) and then watched as others reedited what we had done. I just took a look at the entry and see that it still needs a lot of work — plenty for next year’s class to take on. Indeed, it is an excellent example for Wikipedia critics, a lousy resource for anyone who wants to know anything much about the book. There’s a mediocre plot summary (better than the one there before we edited it and worse than the one we did), nothing about the making of the book, and little about the response since it was published. For a book considered by many to be one of the greatest of all American children’s books, the entry is a travesty.
So you’d think I’d avoid Wikipedia like the plague, wouldn’t you? Well, not so fast. You see, often when I do a quick Google search on something for which I need a clear overview, one of the first pages I get is the Wikipedia entry. And guess what? If it is on a topic I know and I determine it is good (at least as good as the other top links from my google search) and full of reliable links to other sources, I’ll often use it as a link.
So while I have reservations galore and certainly understand why academics like those in Middlebury’s history department limit its use, I’m on the fence. After all, it so depends. The Denver Post recently asked some scholars to take a look at the entries on their topics of expertise and the results were pretty positive.
For more on the pros and cons of Wikipedia as a reliable resource check out their own page on the issue (full of links to a variety of articles and reports). Or read Stacy Schiff’s informative New Yorker article (and then the editor’s note about one very problematic source).
More paradigm shifting I think.