Wikipedia: Boom Town or Sheriff of the Internet’s Wild West?

Wikipedia is the largest open source encyclopedia in the world and one of the most trafficked internet sites globally. It is used at a rate that is almost unfathomable each day with millions of hits. Its policy of open, and often anonymous, editing and creation allows for massive amounts of contribution and information to be accessible on its servers. However, this policy comes with certain drawbacks. The information is subject to peer review and editing which most often isn’t done by an expert. This information is also supplied without approval and opens the door to internet deviants, known as trolls, to easily deface and misinform the pages. It also makes political and business spin prevalent. Many companies and campaigns have continued to re-edit pages to their competitive advantage. And, while references are encouraged and required to have a staff approved or featured page, many pages do not have sufficient data supporting their claims. These pages also suffer from writing that is in many cases disjointed due to several contributors working independently. The writing can become hard to read, lacking focus and flow, making information harder for readers to comprehend without regard to accuracy. As droves of visitors flock to the page for answers to everyday inquiries and homework research, large amounts of incorrect information is added and consumed. While the site makes it easy to discover new information through hyperlinks, it still provides a “wild west” community lacking the necessary expertise to secure more frequent expertise. So, the searching of the average individual tends to be limited to pages within Wikipedia without external digging. Outside sources are neglected as a surface scan of Wikipedia displays more than enough fast information to fill a mind and pacify the desire to look further. In short, the site paints itself as the collaborative “end all” of information leading many searchers to settle for the Wikipedia version of the truth. Even their co-founder, Larry Sanger (who left the organization in the early 2000’s) has criticized the model for not growing and adapting to a more expert supported source. His desire to see the tool become a free encyclopedia of accurate information has fueled his projects since and lead to a great deal of public debate over Wikipedia as an academically trusted source.

Wikipedia has some upside. It is an incredibly powerful way to amass huge amounts of information in one place. It also encourages a journey through knowledge with its hyper-linking. It is very possible to get lost in Wikipedia’s world while jumping from one loosely related subject to the next. But unless you already know how to research well, you are not likely to follow up with the sources cited or able to comprehend what, in the name of all that is holy, is happening on the poorly written pages. It can be an incredibly powerful medium for knowledge dissemination, but often, it serves as a never ending struggle between the empirical and the non-nonsensical.

Often in my prior work with students, I would stress the importance of using Wikipedia as a launching pad for discovery. I would encourage students to start there and then to follow the external sources and citations as a means of digging up the most valid representations and verified opinion on a subject. Any time an individual is curious and seeks knowledge, it is a good thing. But too often I found them saying, “Why would I do that when Wikipedia already has an answer?” or “That seems like an awful lot of work.” The problem lies in the question. Wikipedia DOES have an answer easier to find and quicker to copy. But this answer is not always easy to validate. The concept of research is totally lost on the Wikipedia generation. It is their World Book or Britannica in digital form with no solid editing body in place to take it from being merely extensive to highly accurate. This group of young persons expects the almighty internet to deliver information at blinding speed and fully believes this technological wonder-god is infallible. And, it isn’t necessarily wrong of them to believe. They have been raised in an age where information is for everyone and has been freed to be among the people that deserve the power most. What Wikipedia has done by not creating a more sophisticated model for accuracy and academic integrity is violate the trust of learners. It espouses itself to be encyclopedic and dedicated to academically based materials while offering an entirely different resource. Its not as much a record of empirical data as it is a popularity contest for subjects most often appearing in search queries. If Wikipedia doesn’t improve its model, it will suffer the fate of being replaced by those who reinvent the wheel to be more effective and accurate; or worse, it will become the dominant encyclopedia source and lead to a culture of individuals who consistently muddy factual data in the worst game of telephone ever played.

The tool is revolutionary, but the model of Wikipedia is inherently flawed when it comes to handling the true purpose an encyclopedic database. As of right now, any encyclopedia that would allow comedian Daniel Tosh’s fans to add edits to his page (Hughes 2010) like majoring in underwater basket weaving and growing up in Michael Jackson’s basement without any pre-approval (so many that it required a temporary freeze, shut down of his page and an official request by Tosh to stop) is lacking in academic integrity. The internet is a place that is truly a wild west community that has its nice townsfolk, churches, stores, entertainment establishments, gambling halls, red light districts, and a whole host of wandering bad guys looking to rob banks and disturb the peace. While the internet doesn’t need an army to militarize the place the way that SOPA wanted to, it sure could use a few good sheriffs to run the baddies out of town. Wikipedia has a choice. It could stand up and fight for the little guys of the web or it could keep running a lawless internet mining town.

Works Cited

Hughes, Joselyn . “Your Wikipedia Entries | Tosh.0 Blog.” Online Home of Tosh.0’s Funny Viral Videos hosted by Daniel Tosh | Tosh.0 | Comedy Central. N.p., 3 Feb. 2010. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://tosh.comedycentral.com/blog/2010/02/03/your-wikipedia-entries/&gt;.

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