One of the things I’m the most in awe of with the Internet is the ease that we can find information. You don’t have to go back too many years when information was at best hard to find and at worse inaccessible. When I was in school, the library was my information friend and one of the most used set of books in any public library (at least by school kids) were the racks of encyclopedias. Some families even invested in a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for home use.
The good, bad and ugly of this new found access is the veracity and completeness of the information that we find. Sometimes it’s good, in that the information one finds is reasonably complete, accurate and balanced. More likely, it’s bad, in that its biased, incomplete and/or filled with inaccuracies. Finally, there is a significant amount of fraudulent, hateful and purposefully distorted or basically ugly information. Though the motivations may be positive, its too easy to “spin” or present significantly one-sided or outright inaccurate information. This is the two-edged sword of the Internet. Ease of access vs ease to deceive.
Enter Wikipedia. Please understand that Wikipedia suffers from the good, bad and ugly as noted above and it’s not hard to find examples. However, in general, I’ve found a much higher degree of information integrity in Wikipedia than by simply searching the wider web. Also, there is a fully transparent audit-trail of any given entry that is must reading for controversial or other topics that might be skewed. Reading the “talk” and history pages on any given topic is enlightening and frequently entertaining. This transparency is important to help one understand how good the information is.
Now, I have a conflicted relationship with Wikipedia. I’m finding that I search Wikipedia first before I search the wider Net. Is it laziness or shrewdness? I almost always find the information that I’m looking for with Wikipedia and as mentioned, on many topics, the information is usually better than on the unfiltered Web. This is especially true with topics that are non-controversial or not prone to misrepresentation. I use it heavily for technical information, frequently consulting it during the writing of this blog. The structure of a given protocol or wiring diagram for a connector is almost certainly correct due to a couple factors: If wrong, someone will notice and fix the entry. Also, there is no motivation for distorting the data.
On more controversial or questionable topics, I might search other sources first, but will also consult Wikipedia. Topics with religious, political or corporate influences are particularly prone to misrepresentation or purposeful incompleteness. Another area that has been a problem for Wikipedia involves topics about people and corporations. Again, this is were the transparency is useful. Frequently, one can see how the discussion has evolved the presentation of the topic, which is enlightening.
So, here are some of my thoughts about how to use Wikipedia:
- Formal research should not use Wikipedia. The consensus nature of the process is neither sufficiently authoritative or expert enough to be referenced.
- Entries about people, especially politicians should be treated with skepticism. There are too many folks with axes to grind, some of which are paid. It’s very difficult to get a fair, balanced view in this case.
- Entries about corporations also should be skeptically read. Corporations pay serious money to edit and monitor entries about them and their products.
- There are subtle biases in Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales (the founder) has stated that though the contributors to Wikipedia represent a wide spectrum of ideas from conservative to liberal, overall bias is slightly more liberal than the population as a whole. Also, somewhere between 80-90% of the editors are men and some gender bias has been alleged.
- When viewing any topic, look for markers in the page that indicate that an editor is concerned about the veracity of the information. It’s very helpful to see the talk and history around the segments in dispute.
- When using Wikipedia for highly technical information, there is a concern about expertise of the authors. This goes hand-in-hand with how esoteric the topic is. The more esoteric and highly technical, the more likely the topic will be too superficial and/or contain data flaws.
- Use multiple sources. It’s always good, especially for background on topics that you’re attempting to form opinions on to review many sources on all sides of the topic.
All that said, Wikipedia is a significant resource and has the advantage that its collective information is free. I’ve been searching for other sources of the type of wide-ranging information that is available via Wikipedia and haven’t found anything that exactly fits the bill.
A couple articles that are interesting reading on Wikipedia:
- Judith Newman’s NY Times somewhat touch-in-cheek article entitled: Wikipedia-Mania: What does Judith Newman have to do to get a page? What’s interesting here is the background information about the process and the implications of that process.
- For a really good condensation of the issues around Wikipedia, where to turn? Well … Wikipedia has a page entitled Criticism of Wikipedia that’s worth a read.