The source of my source of knowledge

I came across an interesting article by Henry Blodget, who attempts to reaffirm the original idea that Wikipedia is indeed a product of crowdsourcing, as opposed to obsessive work of a few hundred (or few thousand, it turns out) or so “fanatics, ” as Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales has previously said.

The gist is that most of Wikipedia’s content is the result of countless individual additions—a paragraph here, a sentence there—often from users who never do anything else on the site. One imagines these contributions are few-of-a-kind labors of love. The vast majority of edits, however, are the result of the fanatics Wales refers to: people whose contributions take as much of their time as their jobs, doing things like spell-checking, linking to related articles, moving-things around, tidying the language, etc. So, Wikipedia is written by the many, edited by the few.

Of course, if you were to read the comments made on the first article (one of the quickest paths to depression you can find on the internet), Wikipedia also seems to inspire a special kind of vitriol. One flavor refers to the (lack of) quality of the content, the other to the supposed iron-fisted control by the top editors.

It’s true: errors abound on Wikipedia, as they will on just about everything. And, there are certainly examples of bias, corporate tampering, and pranks. That said, the quality is quite good on a incredible variety of subjects, much more than on a traditional encyclopedia. People complain that it’s not good enough to be cited on papers in high school and college. Well, I hope so. It’s an encyclopedia. Was Encarta? Britannica? Not in many classes I remember, and never by itself.

If I were to tell someone that in medical school, I’ve learned probably 75% of my knowledge for class from Wikipedia, some potential patients might be scared. Instead I’ll argue that when I need to know something in a pinch (or because the homebrew psuedo-textbooks my school provides are often terse and mystifying), Wikipedia is fast and almost always right. It’s often more clear than the textbooks I’ve used and offers interesting and useful information that’s not usually considered relevant enough to include in the already crowded curriculum. The internal links ensure that when there’s a term I’m not familiar with, I need look no further than a click away—saving me time and helping me cement my understanding. It’s not ideal or perfect, but it gets the job done. It’s a springboard and a resource, not the irrefutable source of all party trivia.

Perhaps a group of tight-fisted editors squelch useful new articles or reverse valid changes without warning or justification. Maybe it’s a sacrifice that is necessary in order to cut down on tripe and attempt to maintain a level of cross-article consistency. It’s understandable that someone who makes a one-time contribution gets snubbed and then gets angry, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I think the world is a better off post the wiki revolution than before. Mob wisdom might not be more than the sum of its parts, but it’s still useful.