February 11, 2009 5:38 PM
The Good And The Bad Of Wikipedia
In fact a recent study by Nature magazine comparing the two found that among 42 science entries reviewed, "the difference in accuracy was not particularly great". Encyclopedia Britannica dismissed the study as fatally flawed, while Wikipedia just continued to grow.
"It showed people Wikipedia isn't rubbish," Wales said. "It's actually pretty good. It isn't perfect, but it's pretty good."
It became so popular that not long ago Comedy Central's Steven Colbert bestowed his critique.
"I'm going to log on to Wikipedia here and I am going to change it," he said on one of his shows. "You see, any user can change any entry. And if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true."
Because most anyone can edit most Wikipedia articles, mistakes can and do happen. Altschul searched herself on Wikipedia. Her name was spelled right, but her birthday was wrong. Much more serious errors have been found. Someone falsely implicated former Kennedy adviser John Seigenthaler, Sr. in the Kennedy assassinations.
"When I first read it, I scoffed for a few minutes. And then I was furious about it," he said.
When he contacted Wikipedia the entry was corrected in minutes. Seigenthaler wrote a blistering op-ed in USA Today warning of anonymous attacks.
"Since anybody without any knowledge can put anything on there it is flooded with bad information," Seigenthaler said. "I'm not the only person who has been hit like this."
Soon other hoaxers were replacing Seigenthaler's photo with pictures of Hitler and Lee Harvey Oswald.
"An awful lot of bad things have been said about me on Wikipedia in the last six, eight, ten months," Seigenthaler said.
Wikipedia's solution to vandalism is to lock an entry so no one can tamper with it. But Wales points out that vandalism is not that common. Only a fraction of 1 percent of all articles needs to be locked.
"The weaknesses are, yes, it's updated in real time," Wales said. "It's being edited constantly ... You need to have some consideration if you ... read something that seems a little crazy you should stop and think about it."
Quality control troubled Wikipedia co-founder Sanger. He quit and went on to help create Digital Universe where experts control content. Recently he has announced a new venture called Citizendium that will mirror Wikipedia but will also include expert oversight. While these projects are just starting up, Wikipedia is already in its fifth year of real growth.
"We have the opportunity to start creating, building new kinds of things and share information in new ways," Wales said.
More information is being shared like never before. Whether it's new technology like "Encyclopedia Britannica" delivered on cell phones, or Wikipedia, the promise of a whole new world of information is at our fingertips.
"It is absolutely revolutionary," Sanger said. "Scholarship, learning, is gonna change forever."
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