There are a number of sites on the Internet that are interesting, informative, well-written and, most importantly, accurate. And then there's Wikipedia.
There are currently 3,521,679 articles on the English Wikipedia site, all of which have been written by volunteers. Choose any of its articles and the volunteer who wrote it could be a historian, scientist, professional writer or geologist. But anyone with access to the Internet can edit Wikipedia. That volunteer could equally be a twelve-year-old who's just finished a school project on the subject, or the woman next door who always seems to know everything about everything, despite the fact that she left school without any formal qualification, unless you count the 'C' she got in chicken-plucking class, and has never owned a book.
The problem with Wikipedia is not that it is wholly inaccurate; the problem is that it is partly inaccurate and that readers without any existing knowledge of the subject they're researching don't know which bits are accurate and which bits aren't. Some articles are produced to a high standard, whilst others appear to have been cobbled together in the manner of a twelve-year-old's school project, from a multitude of contradictory sources and with little understanding of the subject or concern for the finished product. This lack of consistency renders the entire site unreliable.
The five principles by which Wikipedia operates are called the Five Pillars, and within the site's definition of one of them, that relating to its neutral viewpoint, it states that 'all articles must strive for verifiable accuracy'. This involves including citations throughout articles that point to published works where the reader can verify information and confirm accuracy. First of all, the fact that information has been included in a published work does not make that content accurate; the author of a Wiki article I looked at recently had ignored all recent scholarship and relied on a book published in 1891. Secondly, not all Wikipedia articles contain such citations to begin with. The entry for 'Utamaro' (my favourite artist), for example, contains no citations at all and is riddled with errors.
'There are more than 91,000 active contributors working on more than 17,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages,' according to the site itself, and it's certainly true that what Wikipedia lacks in consistency and accuracy it more than makes up for in page count, but when did quantity count for more than quality where the acquisition of knowledge is concerned? I'm sure that the site has assisted thousands in triumphing at their local pub quiz, but as the questions posed during those competitions were most likely compiled with Wiki's help that's probably no surprise.
According to the site, the constant editing that each article undergoes 'generally results in an upward trend of quality'. But change has never been any guarantee of improvement. Editing is more than the constant alteration of text; it should involve the correcting of mistakes. Skilled editing can make a good article better; poor editing can make a bad one worse.
Wikipedia's quest is for mediocrity; for the creation of the largest online repository of half-correct (and sometimes quite useless) information, produced by the greatest number of unqualified* individuals, the world has ever seen. And as its current visitors, who leave the site partially informed and partially misguided but grateful nevertheless, return to the site time and time again, Wiki stands to gain a new batch of Wiki-educated contributors who will edit its content in the future.
A little while back, I stood in a bookstore and listened in horror as a child clutching a history book was told by his mother to return it to its shelf and go home to check Wiki instead. And that's what worries me about Wikipedia, the fact that some of its visitors consider it reliable as a tool in their children's education. What with Wikipedia and The Tudors, who needs history teachers and textbooks anymore?
You don't get anything for free, isn't that what they say? In Wikipedia's case, you certainly can't be sure of getting anything of value.
*I am not referring to formal qualifications here. A person does not need to have been formally educated in a subject to know it like the back of his hand or impart information about it to others. 'Qualified' does not, however, by any stretch of the imagination, refer to men, women and children who once read a paragraph on a subject or received a two minute description of it from their Aunt Maud.
Causes Gina Collia-Suzuki Supports
The World Wildlife Fund
Cancer Research UK