Over the weekend, Wikipedia reached the milestone of 200,000 entries in its free encyclopedia. Dan Gillmor praised it in his syndicated column.As usual, Slashdot got wind of it, and as usual, people who’ve never even seen the thing started spouting off about how something that anyone can change can’t possibly be accurate or useful. (Wonder how many of those people run Linux?) At least one person ran over there and vandalized some pages to demonstrate his point. And I’m sure the edit got reversed within a few minutes when someone noticed a change in a watchlist. I, for one, visit occasionally and whenever a change pops up in my watchlist, I look at it out of curiosity. Sometimes I learn something and sometimes I find defacement, which I can then fix.
But I guess if Slashdot discussions were the only thing I ever read, then I wouldn’t have that high of an opinion of something written by random people at will, either.
A more valid criticism is that Wikipedia, by its very nature, can never be accepted as a source for scholarly work. But then I thought back to the papers I wrote in college, and I don’t believe I ever used an entry out of any encyclopedia as a source in any paper that I wrote. And being a journalism major who was 3 credit hours away from a history minor and who filled most of his electives with English and political science classes, I wrote a lot of papers in college. When I wrote my paper on the influence of William Randolph Hearst on the William McKinley administration, I may have looked up both Hearst and McKinley in an encyclopedia to get background information, but I doubt it. Why use an encyclopedia when there are so many good, specialized texts available?
There is still valid use for questionable sources in scholarly work anyway. One professor actually encouraged us to look in Mother Jones and American Spectator when possible, just to get the views from two extremes on the topic at hand. And Wikipedia can give you leads to follow, even if you don’t end up citing it in your bibliography. The material in Wikipedia came from somewhere, after all.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia for the past year or so. I left it entirely when I got tired of an overzealous editor deleting my additions. I guess I wasn’t the only one who complained about her; she’s since disappeared. I used to look at the day in history and try to fill in the gaps; for example, I noticed on one of Jesse James’ anniversaries that he didn’t have an entry, so I put one together. Unfortunately, high-profile stuff seems to be what attracts both vandals and overzealous editors.
So when I came back, I decided to concentrate on things like baseball, obscure old computers, and things that have connections to Missouri, particularly Kansas City and St. Louis. Those are more my areas of expertise anyway, which makes writing them a lot less work, and the topics are obscure enough that I’ve been mostly left alone. Those edits that do pop up usually are true improvements, rather than someone going on a power trip. My entries get linked much less frequently on the front page now, but I’m happier.
Another thing that I’ve taken to doing is to always check Wikipedia whenever I’m researching something. Sometimes Wikipedia has good information, but may be missing some detail I found elsewhere. Sometimes it has very little information. In either case, I try to enter the information I found. I recently created entries for Lionel Corporation, American Flyer, and Louis Marx and Company. Of course I got interested in them because of my recent renewed interest in toy trains, and during the time period I’m interested in, those companies were the big three in the United States. Some of the information about those companies is difficult to find online. Or it was. Now it’s in Wikipedia, which makes it easier to track down.
According to Wikipedia’s records, I’ve contributed to 323 entries. Most of those are pretty minor. There are lots of people who’ve contributed a whole lot more than me.
But I often notice a domino effect on my entries. Soon after writing the Lionel entry, I wrote one for O gauge model railroading in particular, and made an addition or two to the main model railroading article. Soon, other people were making their additions to specific gauges and scales, or creating them when entries didn’t exist. Within a few days, Wikipedia had some good information on the topic. It’s anything but exhaustive, but I’ll put it up against any other encyclopedia’s offering.
One difference that I have definitely noticed about Wikipedia, as opposed to conventional encyclopedias: Wikipedia has a much better pulse on pop culture. I’ve often lamented that people who have entries in the more traditional encyclopedias don’t have entries in Wikipedia, but every teenybopper band that’s come along in the past couple of years has an entry. But I guess ultimately that’s going to prove to be Wikipedia’s strength. In 30 years, it’ll be possible to go to Wikipedia to find out what the hubbub about Justin Timberlake was about. And in 30 years it may be the only place. (One can only hope.)
And in 30 years, those people who deserve more attention undoubtedly will have gotten their entries as well.
I definitely encourage people to look up their topics of interest over there and think about adding some of their knowledge.