MEYERS: Mixed reviews for Wikipedia

March 11, 2005

In the last fifteen years, the Internet has made all but defunct the old 26 volume, several hundred dollar encyclopedia set. One popular site that I have been using and that has emerged within the past few years is known as Wikipedia. The word wiki is Hawaiian, meaning quick, and one might say it lives up to its name in regards to finding lots of information rapidly. Wikipedia is completely free, unlike sites such as Encarta, while at the same time being vastly larger than most other freely accessible online encyclopedias. However, there are several drawbacks in using Wikipedia that should be made clear if one begins using it.

The home page of Wikipedia itself, wikipedia.com, is very informative with sections called Did you know?, In the news, Anniversaries, and multiple links to the same page in other languages. The basic premise of the site is that anyone can edit it, making it what is known as a free-content online encyclopedia.

Thousands and thousands of changes and additions are made to the site every hour. However, one large drawback is that the reader has no idea who is making the entry. There is a log that tells when the addition was made, but the education of the author is unknown. The site says that Nonsense and vandalism are usually removed quickly, but this does not mean that all the entries are unbiased.

Wikipedia requires that its contributors keep a neutral point of view and not include original research. The encyclopedias goal is merely one of representing disputes, characterizing them, rather than engaging in them. In a perfect world, Wikipedia would not be written from a single objective point of view, but rather fairly present all views on an issue, attributed to their adherents in a neutral way. With so many pages of information, including more than 3,000 new pages per day, it is very tough to police the entire website efficiently, so there have been instances of vandalism. Researcher Martin Wattenberg was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying, We were surprised at how often we found vandalism, and then surprised again at how fast it was fixed.

One might ask, If the site can be biased, then why use Wikipedia? The main reason for my frequent use of Wikipedia mainly has to do with its sheer size. For example, I searched the term Brandeis University on Wikipedia, Encarta, and Yahoo! Reference to compare the results. Encarta sent me to a page that required a premium subscribers pass for $4.95 a month and gave a preview sentence about the search. Yahoo! Reference was a little more helpful, but was only a paragraph and very general. When looking up the same term on Wikipedia, pictures, a list of presidents, notable faculty, notable alumni, general facts and external links were all provided. I could click on another link to the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and get information and a picture for that, among other things, if I wanted to. Information is added to pages every day to make it the most up to date encyclopedia available.

My overall conclusion on Wikipedia is one of a mixed message. The site has an incredibly immense database and one is able to find nearly anything, ranging from the constitution of China, to a list of songs whose title appears more than twenty times in the lyrics, to the TV show character Alfs birth date (1756 if you are wondering). However, many of the pages might be incorrect or not completely right and without bias, so using the site as a source for a paper doesnt seem like the best idea. Wikipedia is a great tool for starting research on a particular topic, learning about it, and even finding links to other sites that may be more credible anyway. For some people who just enjoy learning new things, the site is extremely interesting as one can get sidetracked traveling from link to link of seemingly obscure information.

Wikipedia has something to offer for everyone. Just be warned that there are definite flaws to the system but a vast network of knowledge is available to everyone completely free at the click of a button.

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