Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


More and more people are naming Wikipedia as the source they turn to to resolve their questions. Whether you want to know the name of that episode from last season of House or what principles Einstein's theory of relativity contains, Wikipedia has the answer. Everyone knows the way Wikipedia works: various people around the world volunteer their time to contribute, edit, and add to the literally millions of articles that make up the free, open access database. And the first question that should come to everyone's mind is 'Can we really trust this information?' There is no process of approval or accuracy checking prior to "publication" on Wikipedia, which means that information updates are instantaneous, but also that there is no filtering process for articles with heavy bias, gaping omissions, or simply wrong information. But could this uncertainty be, partially, seen in a positive light?

Quoting Wikipedia co-founder and former editor-in-chief, Larry Sanger, "What Wikipedians themselves would say and I agree with them on this one is that Wikipedia has finally awakened in people an understanding that even carefully edited resources can frequently be wrong and have to be treated with skepticism and that ultimately we are responsible for what we believe. That means constantly going back and checking what we thought was established or what we thought we knew. Wikipedians often say that you should never trust any one source, including Wikipedia. That's not anything new; it's always been the case that you should check your source against another source. It's just that the way that the Internet has exposed the editorial process has, for more critical-minded people, made it absolutely plain just how much responsibility we ourselves bear to believe the right thing."

It's an interesting perspective, that the responsibility for the accuracy of the information you gather online, or anywhere, lies with yourself, not with the author or creator of that information. It certainly expands the notion of "taking responsibility for what you say" to taking responsibility for what you read, believe, and think. Wikipedia makes it clear that in an information saturated world, we have to read and listen carefully and critically. Used appropriately Wikipedia can be a very useful tool, but putting too much blind faith in it can be dangerous. And really, the same can probably be said of any reference or information resource.

Also, I love the term Larry Sanger uses for contributors to Wikipedia: "Wikipedians." It sounds like something out of Dr. Seuss.

Schulz, Karen. (26 July 2010) "This Interview Is A Stub: Wikipedia Co-Founder Larry Sanger on Being Wrong." The Wrong Stuff.

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