Wikipedia's Big Glaring Problem

When Wikipedia first appeared in 2005, the excitement of Internet culture pundits was almost palpable.  An online encyclopedia that shared the knowledge of countless people from all over the world embodied the democratizing spirit of the web. "Behold the power of the people," gushed Wired.  And the idea behind  Wikipedia is inspiring: it's no respecter of persons or credentials. Wikipedia contributors just have to be willing to  do some work. But as many of us foresaw from the beginning, the best thing about Wikipedia is also the worst thing about Wikipedia: if anyone can contribute, the door is open to a world of  biased editing and misinformation. In 2005 someone deleted paragraphs from Diebold's Wikipedia entry that were written by a critic of the company's voting machines. This anonymous editor left a digital trial that led back to the IP address of a computer in Diebold's offices. Last month it was discovered New York City cops were  editing Wikipedia entries on cases of police brutality, including the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was choked to death by NYC cops. The account of the police confrontation with Garner was re-written to make Garner sound more physically threatening. And recently the estimable Jessamyn West investigated the veracity of a Wikipedia claim that Louisa May Alcott had disparaged Henry David Thoureau's personal grooming choices (she hadn't). This isn't to say that Wikipedia is worthless. Some of its contributors do great work. In 2007 Noam Cohen of The New York Times praised Wikipedia contributors for the "polished, detailed article" they wrote and edited on the Virginia Tech shooting in the hours immediately following the event. However, don't trust Wikipedia uncritically. I always tell people to use it as a starting point for learning about a subject, but check the citations and external links that usually accompany an entry. If there aren't any citations, be suspicious. Whenever possible consult more than one source when trying to learn the facts about a subject.

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