By Sam Schaefer
The emergence of the online encyclopedia called Wikipedia has brought both great opportunities and controversy. While Wikipedia has revolutionized the way people research, it has also faced criticism for its format which at times allows the spread of misinformation. The criticisms raise questions on how people should use Wikipedia and how much they can trust the information they find there.
Wikipedia provides students with a way to gain general knowledge, do last-minute research on subjects for school, or look up random information on almost any topic imaginable. With over 3,000,000 articles in English and 10,000,000 articles in over 270 other languages, Wikipedia has fundamentally changed the way non-experts do research by offering general information on countless topics in a free and easily accessible manner.
In the past, in order to gain background knowledge on various topics a person would have to spend a significant amount of time searching for general information online or in encyclopedias. Traditional encyclopedias have a limited amount of possibly outdated information on a finite number of topics. Using online search engines, it can be difficult to find summaries that strive for neutrality, accessibility, and accuracy. In contrast, with the advent of Wikipedia, all a person has to do is access the website, search for the subject and read.
East junior Max Huffman frequently uses Wikipedia, and believes the changes it has brought about are overwhelmingly positive.
“It’s changed everything,” Huffman said. “Information on anything you can think of is now instantly available to anyone who’s interested.”Huffman uses the site for a variety of purposes.“I use it for research, for passing curiosity, and as a cure for boredom; everything,” he said.
The format of the website allows for articles on millions of topics with no limitations on length or detail. The wealth of information far outstrips what can be put into most encyclopedias.
School librarian Julie Paladino made her career in the expertise of books, but notes Wikipedia has some great advantages over other encyclopedias.
“I love the fact that there are no limitations as far as length goes,” Paladino said, asserting that the additional length allows more depth. “The article on Artificial Intelligence is phenomenal compared to other encyclopedias.”
The absence of limitations means that articles are as long or as detailed as users want them to be. Articles such as the one on Artificial Intelligence can be far longer and more detailed than an article in another encyclopedia simply because Wikipedia’s online format removes restrictions presented by the print format.
Additionally, the fact that anyone can contribute content means that a variety of individuals with different bases of knowledge can come together to form the articles, painting a balanced, comprehensive picture of any topic.
“I used to teach a class on Wikipedia in my old school district, and I’d tell the kids, ‘individually, you guys are all really smart, but collectively, you’re brilliant,’” Paladino said. “That’s the whole idea of Wikipedia.”
Wikipedia’s status as a user-generated site also creates its most worrisome flaw: accuracy. The fact that anyone can change the articles creates opportunities for incorrect information to seep into Wikipedia articles. One notorious instance of Wikipedia misinformation occurred in an article about John Seigenthaler, a prominent journalist and former associate of Robert F. Kennedy. The article claimed he was a suspect in the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy. Seigenthaler, a pall-bearer at Robert Kennedy’s funeral, was outraged.
The article stayed up with the incorrect information for more than four months. So for four months in 2005, a notable public figure had blatantly inaccurate information written in his Wikipedia biography. Readers accepted it and did not change the information, highlighting the weaknesses of Wikipedia.
In response to the incident, Wikipedia barred unregistered users from creating new articles, but that did not completely defeat the problem. Anybody who registers or leaves their IP address can still contribute information, factually sound or otherwise.
Such questions of Wikipedia’s accuracy have raised concerns as to whether the site is suitable for school research.
Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, believes it’s not the best resource for schoolwork.
“The site is a wonderful starting point for research,” Wales told Time magazine in April 2007. “But it’s only a starting point because there’s always that chance that there’s something wrong, and you should check your sources if you are writing a paper.”
Huffman offered a different viewpoint, asserting that the pitfalls of accuracy can be easily avoided.
“I don’t have as many reservations about its accuracy as teachers would like me to,” Huffman said. “Honestly, if you use common sense and/or check for citations, it’s not that big of a deal.”
Additionally, on the most prominent pages, the constant influx of visitors and site moderators makes inaccuracies rare. Furthermore, Wikipedia’s articles are filled with footnotes, often displaying warnings about the lack of citations or the dubiousness of the sources cited. However, especially in the case of less-trafficked pages, inaccuracies can still exist.Whatever its faults, Wikipedia has revolutionized the way people research. Its invention has allowed for new worlds of knowledge to be accessed by even the most casual seekers of information.