The Community

Okay, so I admit to being biased here. I’m an open-source advocate, work for an open-source company developing an open-source application, and my Wikipedia edit history goes back to 2005, ranging from fixing picayune details to reverting massive vandalism to creating new articles. (I actually recall making edits long before that, but I don’t recall what the account was, much less its credentials.)

But let me ask this: Why shouldn’t you trust Wikipedia? The answer anyone would give you is that anyone can edit it.

I don’t understand this logic. Isn’t that exactly why you should trust Wikipedia? On another site, or in a print dictionary, only a select few can make edits. The presumption is that the fewer editors, the better the quality. This seems insanely backwards to me, though. When something isn’t quite perfect on Wikipedia, anyone in the world can fix it. When something is wrong on a traditional site, or in a print encyclopedia, hardly anybody is empowered to fix it.

Digging a little deeper, I think the “Don’t trust Wikipedia” notion has got to stem from a belief that there are more people seeking to do harm than good. But in my experience, the opposite is true. Back when I had a lot more free time than I do now, I’d watch the list of recent changes, investigate suspicious ones, and roll back vandalism. Maybe 5% of changes were malicious, and one of the reasons I lost interest in reverting vandalism was that I was very frequently beaten to the punch. The changes to Wikipedia are overwhelmingly for the better, and the tiny minority vandalizing articles rarely have their changes stick for more than 30 seconds. (And I’ve seen persistent vandals get banned in a matter of minutes. In keeping with the spirit of openness, bans, with rare exception, only last a week.)

I was going to try to think of some ludicrous analogy, like “Not trusting Wikipedia is like being afraid to (something very safe) because you’re afraid of (something extremely rare),” but then I realized that there are tons of things that fit that category — being afraid to swim in the ocean because you’re afraid of being eaten by a shark, not trusting airplanes because sometimes they crash, not visiting Mexico because of the crime, distrusting Muslims because a minuscule minority of people hold perverted violent views…

But if you’re the type that thinks Muslims are swell and realizes that you’re far more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a plane crash, I don’t understand why you’d think Wikipedia was anything other than the most trustworthy site out there.

3 thoughts on “The Community

  1. Recently I was looking something up on Wikipedia (Swedish royalty I think) and found whole paragraphs copied verbatim from the official web page. In short order I found several other cases. Some people suggested I mark them as such and I did. But it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. In another case someone I know (well friend of friends) was constantly battling a case where editors kept changing that he was the son of someone to that he claims to be the son of someone. Pretty sad really.
    There is also the fact that apparently original research is not allowed to the point that if I see something with my own eyes and add it to Wikipedia it is likely to be rejected.
    In general expert knowledge is depreciated while copying for other sources is more or less accepted as the way to do things.
    All in all my respect for Wikipedia has been going down hill for a while. I still link to it but when I do I try verify the information someplace else first. Or at least make sure it fits with my own knowledge and memory.

  2. Yeah, Wikipedia certainly isn’t perfect — I just think it’s less-bad than all the alternatives. I wouldn’t call copying from other sources an ‘accepted’ way of doing things, except perhaps by a handful of well-intentioned but clueless editors.

    The original research rule is actually meant to discourage the sort of thing you reference with “constantly battling” changes, by requiring that you cite a source so that it’s verifiable. (Of course what’s a valid source and what isn’t is another can of worms, but the intention is to discourage people from writing things as though they’re gospel.) An encyclopedia, even Wikipedia, is just meant to be an overview of the information known on a topic. That said, rejecting common-sense things as ‘original research’ is foolish, but sometimes happens.

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