The problem with Wikipedia is not Wikipedia, it’s how people use it.
The tool itself is absolutely brilliant. I like to see it as a modern Great Library of Alexandria, a true wonder that exists only to serve knowledge: to share it, to compare it, to discuss it, to enrich it. It’s rare in today’s society where everything has a price and everything is deeply carved by private economic interests.
However, when you mention Wikipedia, people shrug and ridicule it. It is changing but the info you get from it is usually dismissed as nonsense and there are two main reasons for it.
The first one: the celebrities. Wikipedia is mostly mentioned in mainstream media along with celebrities and their biography. You will hear Liam Hemsworth surprised at the fact that he worked in a library before making it as an actor. You will enjoy Jennifer Saunders laughing at her supposed previous relationships with rock stars who wrote songs about her. The list is endless and the reason is that there is a huge demand in biographical details of celebrities. When checking Dan Radcliffe on Wikipedia, no one really gives a crap about which film he did first, people are looking for a possible homosexual experience or a confirmation that he’s a raging alcoholic.
Wikipedia, in its form, offers the perfect support for it: it’s free and everyone can contribute but come to think of it, our own parents don’t know about our full private life so how can a complete stranger do? So it’s a free for all, one can write anything they want or read in the tabloids which are becoming the reference in itself.
People who have the time and the will to go on the Internet and write about Frank Lampard’s private life are his devoted fans or haters. Not football fans, but his fans or his haters. The ones who fangirl over pictures of him in a suit with his girlfriend or the ones who are getting back at him because he plays for rival team. When it comes to the rich and famous, Wikipedia becomes as erratic, naïve and deceiving as the people who write and read about them.
Nevertheless, reducing Wikipedia to rubbish because of that is sophism. David Letterman, a couple of months ago, dismissed some details about the sea bathing Melbourne for they were found on Wikipedia. His argument was that his biography was wrong on the website therefore the information about Melbourne was wrong too. No, it’s a different scale. Geographical facts are gathered scientifically and can be easily checked and amended if wrong whereas genuine biographical facts of celebrities are few and far between so people will grant themselves literary licence to fill the blanks.
The two are not comparable and the issue is not with Wikipedia but rather with people who read celebrity entries like they read the tabloids: it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The second reasons are the fucking idiots from that American university. Yes, I swore but they are a waste of brain!
A couple of years ago, a professor and its students were obviously bored out of their mind and did not know what to do with the millions a private company had bankrolled them so they ‘made’ an experience. They went on Wikipedia, wrote absolute bollocks about something in physics (I think) to see if people believed it. People did so they have been discrediting Wikipedia ever since. According to them, it proves Wikipedia is 100% nonsense!
Question: How is it different from them publishing these wrong facts in an article or in a book? People would have believed it as much they did on Wikipedia and it would have been rectified as much as it has been on Wikipedia.
We believed them, not because it is Wikipedia, rather because these people have academic credentials to write about this. We, Wikipedia and the rest of us, trusted them to write honestly about what they know. That’s the whole point of Wikipedia: it calls on people who know about something to genuinely share it with clear references. The same way the press is expecting scientists to be honest about what they write, whether it is accurate or not.
This is not Wikipedia’s fault if we don’t question what a university professor, who we trust to tell us the truth, is writing on it. These people could easily have written something true to inform us, to help us, to bring something more, instead of wasting their and our time by deceiving everybody. They are one of the main reasons why Wikipedia is full of errors, because they are too busy trying to prank and deceive people to begin with.
Their conclusion is sophism in its genuine essence. When some scientists publish something that turns out to be wrong in a newspaper, we don’t discredit the whole press as such. We don’t question every single fact from every newspaper. We discredit the scientist. When a scientist comes on TV or the radio or write a book to assert something that, after investigation, is discovered to be rubbish, we don’t call for people not to trust the media, we point the fingers at the scientist.
So why do we point finger at Wikipedia instead of that professor and those students? I don’t see how using their academic credentials to fool people is proof that Wikipedia is shit. If the medium creates the lie, like tabloids do, I agree they should be discredited because they instigate the problem. However, this is not the case here. Wikipedia and its staff have not deceived anyone, the professor and its students have.
Regarding the content in itself, it is also a matter of educating people on how to handle it and this is not Wikipedia’s mission either. What are they supposed to do? Force people to read a 20-page disclaimer? This is the job of teachers like me to tell students that Wikipedia is very good but to teach them to double check the facts here and there. One can argue that it’s what the professor and its students were aiming for but this is not what they either said or achieved. Their conclusion was plain: Wikipedia should not be trusted, therefore used.
When I read about my country or things I know on Wikipedia, it turns to be 90% accurate and that’s enough for me. If I see something I know to be wrong, Wikipedia is expecting me to be clever enough to amend it with trustworthy references instead of slamming my laptop in disbelief and preaching the hanging of its founder.
When after hearing of Chernobyl again in the press, I go there finally looking for an answer as to how radioactivity is affecting living organisms, I am just looking for some overall understanding not a full-on exposé on how to handle radioactivity in my house or because I have decided to clean Fukushima myself. But already I hear the nuclear scientific community saying that Wikipedia is fooling people into believing something that is not true. Get down from your ivory tower, stop the finger-pointing and make it true then! Why is it so difficult for people who know to do that?
After that, it’s all a matter of scale. As long as it doesn’t encourage people to go to Fukushima for a uranium-cleanse spa treatment, I am fine with what I read because I am not a nuclear scientist, I am MFL teacher with a passion for baking. It’s a good start for me to look further. Then again, if you have students in final year of nuclear physics reading Wikipedia like the Bible, the university has serious issues with its teaching. Don’t blame Wikipedia.
The website’s mission is to make knowledge easily accessible to everyone, by everyone, through everyone. It calls on us to selflessly share what we know, to build a new beacon of knowledge and we do. In this day and age of general dumbing down in mainstream media, it is hard for the media to believe but people do go and look for information and knowledge on a daily basis and they are changing their attitude towards it.
Not everything in the books of The Great Library was true, far from it, but what was written inspired people, helped them move forward and triggered discussions. It was starting point. That’s what Wikipedia is for. And the fact that people are ready to share so much in exchange of nothing, the fact that all my students know about go to look for some information is an achievement no one can dismiss.