As a blogger who tries to develop good information on-line, I feel that my fortunes are somewhat tied to Wikipedia’s reputation.  I use Wikipedia often in blogging, because it is fast and easy; because it is open about its limitations; and because most people online tend to stay online, so it’s serviceable to link to an entry.  Today I used it to verify my memory concerning the route of an oil pipeline; and I used it to write this post.  Second, I feel that my blogging fortunes are tied to Wikipedia because many of the debates about blog reliability and usefulness mirror the Wikipedia controversies.  As Wikipedia falls, so do we all.

There are many kinds of blogs: some are very personal, others very focused.  Blogs can be a great way to get information or absorb finer points in public discourse.  Many of their writers are making good-faith efforts every day to bring nuance and knowledge to the public sphere.  It’s also true that others are not.  I’ve seen that some have few boundaries when making accusations or points they wish to make.   Some bloggers write terribly or use specious logic.  Sometimes the writing and the logic are both bad, and thus one can click out of the site immediately.  In other cases, it’s a little more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, and it requires reader discrimination and a little more research.  But blog links allows one to reference one’s opinions, and those references serve as a check to bizarre claims.  Sometimes, others post on the underlying nonsense of a seemingly logical post.

Wikipedia falls on the factual side of the internet information spectrum, but opinions do of course come up in the editorial choices that its writers make.  In essence, it internalizes the debate between fact and opinion in the same way that any reference does.  It has an oversight board to monitor quality of entries.  But with billions of entries, it’s hard to get to them all, just as it would be mad to try to correct every erratic person on the Internet.

Encyclopedic knowledge
It’s become more common in public discourse to ban Wikipedia from the classroom or to discuss its fallibility as an academic resource.  But this is a pre-existing stance in the academy; this argument is older than Wikipedia.  It has roots in the entire encyclopedia debate.  As I recall, we weren’t allowed to use them in school either, for much the same reasons.  I remember thinking how ironic it was that my parents scrimped to buy a set the summer before I learned I could not use it.

An encyclopedia is an alphabetical, often multi-volume compendium of generalized facts.   Its authorship is frequently attributed at the very end volume of the series; the essays within are designed to give a general framework of understanding  or to help elucidate a context.  Usually an entry is somewhat terse and concentrated.  Unfortunately, they are easily plagiarized by writers in search of a quick report or article.  They look like an endpoint for research rather than a starting point.  My instructors wanted us to learn how to use other resources.  Thus much of the Wikipedia debate has to do with its extension of problems with encyclopedias in general.

Collaborative accuracy
A second problem is one of accuracy or verifiability.  Interestingly, Wikipedia is set up to announce its deficiencies.  An article can be noted as too short (a stub) or lacking references, or even be under dispute.  Wiki (which means ‘quick’) is designed to be collaborative, and its stated bias is not to stop information input but to make that information easy to edit to greater accuracy.  It presumes an overall goodwill, which at times has been a cause for mistakes, in both initial entries and in disputed or edited ones. 

From an academic standpoint, Wikipedia does not rely on a transparent system of stated experts.  Neither do written encyclopedias.  For book-form encyclopedias, choosing entry writers has hardly been a transparent or inherently merit-based approach, whatever its pretensions.  I have read some incredibly parochial and patronizing accounts of foreign lands in old encyclopedias.  More, there is no medium within them for questions or dispute–nor for updates.  While the vetting process for traditional encyclopedias might be more academically stringent, it is also somewhat closed.  All in all, I prefer to take my risks with the online version.

Politicization of entries
Jackass with BlindersThen there is discussion of Wikipedia’s liberal bias.  A new encyclopedia, called Conservopedia, has been initiated by an advocate of home-schooling.  For one thing, it discusses Paleontological Eras as misbegotten terms, thus closing off entire realms of inquiry for its students.   Ah.   These kinds of disputes are related to Wikipedia’s ubiquity and success–a debate no book-bound encyclopedia has had to endure for long.

Last of all, Wikipedia has collected the press reports both for and against its work.  One of the articles recommends–as I do–that Wikipedia be a springboard for further research–not to be quoted directly, but to be used as a starting point for further inquiry.   That’s reason enough to be happy with Wikipedia’s existence, and the hard work of many contributors.  One professor at Oberlin has even assigned Wikipedia as a research source–requiring that the students assess particular entries for accuracy and completeness as opposed to other sources.  That’s an even better model: a critical one that enables one to evaluate all references one encounters.

The days of taking knowledge from one source alone are gone: the world has become too complex.  Reputable blogs and sources like Wikipedia can get one started on the search for answers; make you aware of upcoming events or risks; give you a window on areas of the world that no other news source will tackle.  We’re so lucky to have all this information, but that doesn’t mean we get to swallow it whole.  Reader beware: this post is a stub.  There’s plenty more opinions than mine, and they might even have better links.

Photo: Texas A & M University;