Despite the criticism, Wikipedia worthwhile

March 19, 2006|By TEAGUE LYONS

Feeling insignificant? Here's the remedy: Create an Internet-based encyclopedia entry about yourself.

All you need do is log on to and write your life's accomplishments. Once you're finished, it will be available instantly to Internet browsers everywhere.

Wikipedia isn't some online sideshow, either. It is used by tens of millions of people every week - more than

Wikipedia is an interactive online encyclopedia that anyone can work with; you can create your own entries and edit existing ones.

For example, if you don't agree with the statement in the Baltimore entry that Mayor Martin O'Malley "has maintained high approval ratings through both of his terms in office," you can change it. But be warned that your change may be edited by anyone who disagrees or thinks you have erred.

You are not alone in thinking this arrangement seems like a disaster. Many people first heard of Wikipedia in November when noted journalist John Seigenthaler publicly criticized the site for libelous information inserted in his entry that hinted he might have been involved in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, a friend and political ally. In the furor that followed, many commentators echoed his view that Wikipedia is a "flawed and irresponsible research tool."

Yet Wikipedia is very valuable. The quality of the information tends to be very good. The British scientific journal Nature conducted a blind peer review of 42 Wikipedia science articles in December, comparing them with their counterparts in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the error rates were similar - about three per article for Britannica and about four per article for Wikipedia. The rate of "serious" errors was identical.

In many ways, Wikipedia is not merely comparable but far better than traditional sources. For one, the breadth of information is astounding. Subjects too obscure or mundane to be addressed in traditional reference sources often are explored exhaustively on Wikipedia, from the mechanics of the credit card industry to Butterfinger candy bars ("It has a firm, orange-colored center that tastes like peanut butter and crumbles when eaten").

The content is also updated faster than other reference sources, often changing within minutes to reflect new developments.

Wikipedia entries are extensively hyperlinked so that the Butterfinger entry, for instance, has links to about 30 other articles about candy bars and partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil. As Wikipedia notes, this approach beats tedious footnoting because it gives immediate access to full explorations of related concepts.

In practice, it allows you to float freely through information wherever curiosity takes you, fulfilling the Internet's promise in a way that few other resources do.

Indeed, Wikipedia's most important role might be in creating a model for using the Internet to collectively gather and mediate knowledge. The issue of accuracy and accountability of information looms over many public debates today as the world grapples with the changes that information technology has brought. Wikipedia is the only organization that has undertaken a broad effort to create a set of tools and procedures to make something usable out of the free-for-all.

If you were to create an autobiography, it most likely wouldn't last long. One of Wikipedia's thousands of active editors would notice it and investigate its relevance. Unless you're famous, it would soon be removed for lack of encyclopedic value. And if you are famous, you'd likely receive a note from an editor that Wikipedia guidelines discourage autobiography.

Ideas and perceptions clash in repeated editing of articles; over time, they reach a consensus through continual re-editing. Wikipedia notes that while information from its pages and elsewhere should always be verified, its entries tend to get more complete and balanced over time through this process. (Experienced editors can temporarily block changes to an entry if malicious edits are being made continually.) Crucial to Wikipedia's model is its openness.

The history of edits made to each article is available to every user, so a questionable edit can be quickly traced back to the person who made it. Correction can follow correction, and those who act in bad faith are rightly chastened. If one looks through the histories and forums, it becomes clear that users who regularly edit have created a community with its own norms and etiquette that helps moderate the discussion.

This is an encouraging development when it seems more difficult every day to evaluate the alternate versions of reality being presented by a proliferation of news sources. Wikipedia's radical openness may be frightening right now; there have been and will be more problems along the way. But the work it is doing to harness the power of the Internet will be appreciated for years to come.

Teague Lyons is a graduate student in public policy at the Johns Hopkins University. His e-mail is

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