Thursday, September 22, 2005

Do You Wiki?

On Sunday afternoon, I spoke at the local chapter of a group to which I belong. During our discussion, I casually mentioned Wikipedia and was shocked to find that more than half the members didn't know what I was talking about.

These people are Internet-savvy. Many of them have their own websites and routinely use the Internet for research. I explained the concept and gave them the pros and cons as I see them. Thinking about this later, I wondered how many of the users of Wikipedia actually know how it works and the pitfalls to avoid.

Because I'm a self-admitted research slut, I encountered Wikipedia during its toddlerhood, if not its infancy. Frequently, when I would google arcane subjects, Wikipedia would be among the few citations listed. Because I am a research slut, I investigated Wikipedia to find out whether I could trust its data.

I'm quoting here directly from Wikipedia's own listing: "Wikipedia is a multilingual, Web-based, free-content encyclopedia written collaboratively by volunteers and operated by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation based in St. Petersburg, Florida." Pay attention here: its entries are written "collaboratively by volunteers." That means that anyone with knowledge on a subject (or even without knowledge) can write an entry and have it posted under the Wikipedia byline. Again quoting from Wikipedia's own description of itself: "Wikipedia is built on the belief that collaboration among users will improve articles over time, in much the same way that open-source software develops."

That's very well and good down the road as people edit an entry. However, it can be disastrous if you're a teenage student doing research for a term paper. If you happen to stumble onto an erroneous entry and take it for gospel, your goose is cooked.

So why, you ask, would anyone ever bother to use Wikipedia? I use it frequently and here's why. Wikipedia has the benefit of immediacy. When Pope John Paul II died, I checked the listing for the Catholic papacy almost every day because it was constantly being updated. I could read about the frontrunners for the vacancy and, as I compared the data to other sources such as the newspaper or television news, I found it to be very accurate.

Another time I use Wikipedia is when I'm starting a research project on something I know absolutely nothing about. If I don't even know enough to generate search terms, I read the Wikipedia entry, write down key words and then use those key words to do my google search. I NEVER take the information shown on Wikipedia as gospel. I check and recheck each piece of data.

Wikipedia is an excellent tool when you need information on something very new--recent trends like podcasting, for example--or when you don't know where to start to research something. However, a smart researcher will verify the information found.

Hitwise, which monitors such things, reports that traffic on Wikipedia has grown over 150% during the past year. It is now getting as many hits as the venerable New York Times. That scares me a little. While I applaud the concept of collaboration and openness, I wonder how many people bother to check the information they are downloading. You and I, dear reader, both know that just because we read it on the Internet doesn't make it true.

Just musing . . .

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