What Wikipedia Is (and Isn’t)
In light of the recent discussions here of Wikipedia, I’d like to throw in my two cents on the subject.
I like Wikipedia. In fact, I like it a lot. In fact, I have gone so far as to do what Eugene Volokh warned against — I’ve actually cited to Wikipedia. In fact, I cited to Wikipedia six times in a recently published law review article. (I’m not alone in this by any means–“wikipedia” gets over 200 hits on a Lexis search of law review articles, almost all of which are cites to entries.) In my case, I cited Wikipedia as a starting point for investigating personalities, such as John Mellencamp, Tom Clancy, and Marni Nixon. I’m aware that some of these entries contain certain inaccuracies, but I feel comfortable citing to them for reasons I’ll explain below. In the alternative, I suppose I could have cited to nothing (not very helpful to the reader) or cited to books (realistically, though, how many people would follow up on those cites?). Also, I should admit that, in part, I cite to Wikipedia sometimes because I hope some readers might take a look at Wikipedia and appreciate it for what it is. However, I’m not trying to deceive people about what Wikipedia is–it is, more or less, the Web, repackaged and reformatted.
In fact, before I cited to Wikipedia, I cited, on rare occasions and for very similar reasons, to web searches on Google for a specific term. (Again, I’m not alone in this, though the numbers of people who did this were smaller.) As far as I’m concerned, citing to a Wikipedia entry for Marni Nixon and a Google search for Marni Nixon are very nearly the same thing. Both are invitations to the reader to enter what you might call a “muddy information portal,” a messy and organic field of data that the citing author does not control, but feels would be helpful to the reader as a starting point for further research. Citing to something like that might be unorthodox, yes, but I don’t think it is beyond the pale.
To my mind, the difference between citing Wikipedia and citing a Web search is just a matter of the target’s format. When we search the Web, Google creates our “entry” on the fly with algorithms that prioritize popular and relevant websites. With Wikipedia, we have the dynamic of Web search somewhat inverted — creators with data they consider relevant to specific terms offer up that data to Wikipedia under a shared hosting umbrella in a common format (and with a commitment to collaboration). Due to this, Wikipedia entries generally look nicer. But other than that, Wikipedia and the World Wide Web are very nearly the same thing. Wikipedia’s openess, to both creation and revision, doesn’t guarantee much accuracy.
Yet I personally find searching the Web’s messy data for specific terms, if not a good way to find authoritative information reliably, an extremely helpful step in my process of research. I would never cite to Wikipedia as an authority in my field. (E.g. for a definition of the Patriot Act.) But for certain purposes, e.g., providing a basic introduction to celebrities, I think it is okay.
I’m aware that many people think there is a serious problem with Wikipedia, but I think that problem is about misconceptions of Wikipedia and perceptions of others’ misconceptions. For instance, Professor Anita Ramasastry a few days ago suggested that Section 230 should be modified to remove Wikipedia, partially, from its scope. Her reasoning:
It presents itself as an online encyclopedia – which has the connotation of reliability (and, in the past, edited content). We’d be foolish not to take blog postings with a grain of salt – but what about an article that is characterized as an encyclopedia entry? Unsurprisingly, many people are relying on the content as if it were correct and using the site as a reference tool. College students often cite to Wikipedia in their research papers, for example. In addition, Wikipedia is very influential. It ranks very highly in the major search engines. This means that Wikipedia’s potential for inflicting damage is amplified by several orders of magnitude.
So Professor Ramasastry obviously knows what Wikipedia is — her concern is just that other people don’t. I suppose my question back is, whose problem should we make this “connotation of reliability”? If students believe everything in Wikipedia is true, can’t we just tell them it isn’t?
In a way, the current fuss over Wikipedia is very reminiscent of conversations I heard ten years ago about websites. It seemed many people were at pains to warn the public (and particularly “students”) that everything you saw on a website was not true. Clueless people were out there posting crazy things on websites, spewing misinformation. Now, it seems, we all have internalized that fact and moved on — such articles still pop up now and then, but not nearly as frequently. And–surprise!–it seems we’re all still using the Web and we all find it pretty useful–perhaps more useful now than ever, given the improvements in powers of search and the greater amounts of data we can sift through. Yet behavior that we now agree is foolish (e.g. not taking facts offered on a random website with a grain of salt) was once deemed a significant problem.
Perhaps we might be a little more confident? Just as we figured out what the Web is (and isn’t), I wonder if we will somehow manage to figure what Wikipedia is (and isn’t) — pretty much the same thing.