Wikipedia: cuts through bureaucracy, gets down to the meat

Keith Brumley

Keith Brumley?Public Service Volunteer?

Many academicians reject the Wikipedia as a valid reference.

They’re wrong 8212; for the most part.

Wikipedia democratizes knowledge. What its critics fault as its weakness is also its greatest asset. Anyone can contribute. It’s based on the notion of an open society. Overseen and edited by volunteer experts, it recognizes the common-sense idea that knowledge does not rest alone behind the cloak of academia.

I’ve occasionally wondered if Wikipedia (once called “Winkipedia” by one of my professors) threatens those in the profession, thus prompting disdain. Since access is free and immediate, there’s a danger students may uncover information contrary to what they’re being taught, thus giving them tools to challenge their teachers.

Academic freedom is not always that free and there’s nothing more dangerous than an insecure professor and/or administrator. These poor folks live in a political cauldron. There are protocols, hierarchies, internal politics, departmental agendas and not the least of which, individual egos to massage. The life of an academician can be a tough one 8212; and I’m serious.

Fortunately, Wikipedia cuts through the bureaucracy and gets down to the meat. Like all search engines, it’s a tool. But . . . like all tools, a person must know how to use it. Peter Froelich of the Sociology Department occasionally uses Google to look up something peaking his curiosity. Wikipedia often comes up. If interested, he’ll open the page.

“It’s a user beware issue,” Froelich said, “No one is held responsible for its accuracy. Wikipedia can also tempt students to plagiarize 8212; it’s easy for them to get caught.”

Wikipedia is not, Froelich points out, a systematic knowledge base. As an instrument for many forms of academic research, it’s no substitute for professional journals.

On the other hand, Wikipedia is an important port of entry concerning most anything. It is currently one of the top ten websites worldwide and is an invaluable aid for those lacking library access. A truly collaborative effort, the quality of its articles improved exponentially since its inception. Wikipedia is in a continual state of growth, revision and the integrity of those who manage it is as impeccable as any8212;and perhaps better than most.

In 2009, journalism professor and media researcher Andrew Lih published The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. Lih was a pioneer in 1999 when he developed the first guidelines concerning The Pulitzer’s acceptance of digital multimedia submissions. Lih is furthermore a Wikipedia moderator and hosts the Wikipedia Weekly, a roundtable and podcast, discussing the issues related to both the Wiki and the online industry. Lih’s current project is WikiFactSheet, which, Lih writes in his blog, “attempts to bring the culture of reliable sources, verifiability, and citations set by Wikipedia to the task of fact checking news outlets and sources.” This may sound a bit arrogant to some, but the fact remains that Andrew Lih is a very well respected media authority.

The wiki idea was first created by software engineer Ward Cunningham who, according to the Washington Times created wiki (meaning quick) technology in 1994. Launched in 2001 by Larry Sanger and Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia is based on the common law notion of good faith and good will. It’s the fastest growing8212;and largest8212;general reference site on the web. It is, accordingly to Lih, increasingly being referenced in books, legal cases and popular culture.

What makes Wikipedia unlike any other reference site is that it’s almost entirely edited, overseen and moderated by volunteers. The people who work long hours making sure of Wikipedia’s accuracy do it for free. These folks really care.

Wikipedia quotes its mission in part as thus:

“The mission of the Wikipedia Foundation is to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.”

It is, perhaps, its boldness and optimism that makes the Wikipedia culturally, historically and information-wise both significant and valuable. It’s based on the premise that open is better than closed.

Andrew Lih sees it this way: “If news is the first draft of history, the Wikipedia is the working draft of history.”

To close, my advice for all is to use it with discernment, question it and look for collaborating facts. Then do what you need to do.

Keith Brumley is an SDSU alumnus and current journalism graduate student at SDSU. Contact Keith at [email protected]