I’m not sure how many times a day I refer to Wikipedia. Maybe 10-15 times on an average day. A glance through my Internet history in the past week reveals Wikipedia searches as varied as Scientology, Cauchy’s Theorem, Twyla Tharp, and Queen (band).
Everyone seems to be using Wikipedia these days. It is the automatic go-to source of information whenever people are faced with a question or a cultural with which they are unfamiliar. Famously, even Rush Limbaugh (not that Rush Limbaugh should be taken as any kind of indicator of national trends) who has often told his listeners not to believe what they read on Wikipedia was caught referencing information obtained from Wikipedia. The information, which was about a federal judge, later turned out to be false, having been posted by some Wikipedia prankster. The misinformation was corrected shortly after it was posted. Limbaugh simply had the misfortune of checking the site while the false information was still posted (I never thought I would see the day when I would feel sympathy for Rush Limbaugh).
In talking to people over the last few days about their experiences with and attitudes towards Wikipedia, I have found that people’s feelings about Wikipedia are pretty uniform. The first reaction I got from everyone was how useful Wikipedia is. They all told me how they use Wikipedia for random factual searches as well as for writing papers. People talked about how often they use it for classes: whether for math classes, science classes, English classes, or sociology classes. It seems to be the number one resource used for questions like: “Now what is exactly is the formula for integration by parts?” as well as for questions like: “Now how many years has it been since Patrick Swayze died and what kind of cancer exactly did he have?”
However, with all of the people that I talked to, they immediately followed their praise of Wikipedia’s usefulness by adding that Wikipedia cannot be trusted. They all went on at length about the problems of letting anyone edit a page. Many people talked about how companies and individuals could edit their own Wikipedia pages to portray themselves in a positive light. Some people even showed me examples of pages that were clearly taken from company promotional materials or pages that were simply poorly written and lacking in impartiality. (For an example, check out the Pierson College Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierson_College.) Everyone seemed to have some kind of anecdote about the untrustworthiness of Wikipedia. Many of them admitted to having purposely changed Wikipedia articles to make them contain false information. However, when pressed, they conceded that the pages they had edited had quickly been restored to their former form.
I find this contrast incredibly fascinating. People do not trust the accuracy of their main source of information and yet they continue to use it because nothing else can compare to Wikipedia in terms of breadth of information and easy accessibility. General wisdom says that this contrast is a bad thing. Everyone I talked to went on at length about how bad it is that Wikipedia has found such a strong foothold in our society when one cannot trust the veracity of all of the statements it makes. However, I beg to differ on this point.
Before the days of Wikipedia, when people had a question about something they turned to news media or encyclopedias. However, in actuality, these sources really aren’t any more trustworthy than Wikipedia is. A recent study (albeit a controversial one) found that articles on Wikipedia on average had the same number errors as equivalent articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Similarly, news media gets things wrong all of the time and is incredibly biased in its presentation of things. Whenever I have seen a news story about something I actually know about, I have been horrified at the inaccuracies of the story. I can only assume that the stories I don’t know anything about are just as inaccurate.
In my mind, this not only demonstrates that people are learning to navigate the world of Wikipedia, thus better detecting areas of false information and so helping to make Wikipedia a more reliable source, but that Wikipedia in being the main source of information for a lot people, is helping to produce a generation of critical thinkers. It is creating a generation of people who don’t just blindly accept information, but who remember that all of the information with which they are presented whether on Wikipedia or in the news is presented by people, people who may not always be the most trustworthy sources.
Thus, I think Wikipedia has done an enormous service to society in more ways than one. Yes, creating a vast database of easily accessible up-to-date information is important and incredible and worthy of all kinds of praise. But I think that another one of the really important legacies of Wikipedia is one that people don’t think about much. That is, that Wikipedia has created a generation of critical thinkers. It has created a generation that questions where information comes from and is fluent at fleshing out areas of bias and inaccuracies.
I think Wikipedia teaches people incredibly important skills, namely the ability to ask: Who is writing this, what are their motivations, what might they not be saying, is this really true, what evidence is there to support this statement? These are skills that people then apply to other areas of their lives. I think this generation, when watching a news story, or reading blog, or even reading a textbook—all resources whose accuracy people normally might not have questioned—now asks these same questions. Wikipedia has thus created a generation that does not just blindly accept, but analyzes and criticizes and thinks. And I think that is the true legacy of Wikipedia.