At the beginning of my senior year of high school, something amazing happened: San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) finally lifted its years-long block of Wikipedia from its Internet networks. Ever since I was in sixth grade, teachers used to tell my classmates and me about the terrors of Wikipedia, saying it is unreliable and characteristic of bad research.
To SDUSD’s credit, Wikipedia seemed like a pretty sketchy idea back then. The concept of a free-to-access encyclopedia that anyone can edit understandably made administrators wary. The risk of students being misinformed by Wikipedia seemed very high, and so we were taught to avoid the site at all costs and Wikipedia was blocked from school servers. And given some of Wikipedia’s early blunders, like the Seigenthaler incident in which a journalist was inappropriately labeled as a suspect in the murder of JFK, these concerns were not unwarranted.
Of course, this didn’t stop us from using Wikipedia. It was so much easier to just read the extensive and highly informative Wikipedia page on the American Revolution (or any other topic) than it was to peruse hundreds of links on Google. And it was easy to trick your teacher into thinking you didn’t do so thanks to the fantastic “References” and “External links” sections of every article.
It wasn’t until Wikipedia’s 9th year that SDUSD lifted its ban on the website. The response by most students (and teachers too) was “It’s about time.” By 2010, everyone was using Wikipedia for research, whether they admitted it or not. It was easy, informative, and, with time, it was becoming much more reliable. As Wikipedia grew into an increasingly larger community of editors and volunteers, and as its leaders implemented new policies to assure accurate information, incidences of misinformation became exceedingly rare. Vandalism is now practically a non-issue on the site. Try messing around with a Wikipedia article right now. I guarantee it will be fixed within five minutes.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Wikipedia is now flawless, nor will it ever be. No encyclopedia is without errors, and we shouldn’t expect Wikipedia to be either. Temporary issues arise now and again. There are still probably hundreds of Wikipedia articles with inaccuracies that editors won’t pick up on.
I once met a graduate student who TAs a course in African history at University of California, Berkeley. She was telling me about how she instructs her students never to use Wikipedia as a resource when writing a research paper. She told me that every year, a specific research topic is assigned, and the Wikipedia article on this particular topic happens to have a factual error in it (I believe the error is the date of a battle). And every year, she uses this error to find out which of her students did not heed her advice.
In response, I asked this person why she hasn’t corrected the Wikipedia article. She didn’t know how to reply; clearly, she wanted to continue to exploit the error to uncover the Wikipedia users. I think this example illustrates exactly what is most wrong and what is most amazing about Wikipedia.
In my opinion, this person is as backwards-thinking as SDUSD’s old policy. Wikipedia thrives on its community of users, and it depends on these users to correct inaccuracies. When individuals choose not to do so, the community suffers and that is Wikipedia’s biggest problem.
Yet, at the same time, giving that editing power to the community makes Wikipedia the most powerful and dynamic encyclopedia in human history. When Denis Diderot began compiling the Encyclopédie with Jean le Rond d’Alembert in the 18th century, one of his main goals was to compile the works of many different philosophers and writers in an effort “to change the way people think.” In that regard, Jimmy Wales is the modern-day Diderot, compiling the knowledge of millions of individuals into one of the most extensive projects in recent years. But that project’s success depends entirely on whether we, the community, choose to accept it and allow it to advance.