‘Useless Content’ – Part 1
‘Wikipedia is not a valid source’. That’s a common critique on the online encyclopedia. Erin Harty from the University of Idaho stresses that the information on Wikipedia doesn’t have any academic background and that it ‘is not really an encyclopedia but an online magazine written by volunteers who do not need to have any specialized knowledge on anything at all’.
Of course Erin Harty (blogger on The Argonaut) is right. Reading a ‘real’ encyclopedia you can be sure that what you read is objective and true, written by scientists and specialists in their the specific fields. At the contrary, we can’t take any of the content on Wikipedia for granted. “Visitors do not need specialized qualifications to contribute” (Wikipedia) and can post and adapt texts anonymously. According to Harty, and probably to many others, we’d better go back and find our information in traditional libraries.
Nevertheless, I think Wikipedia could be a very handy tool. Especially young students, who’ve grown up using computers and efficiently gathering information via search engines, ‘just look it up on Wikipedia’. No need to go through enormous ‘real life’ encyclopedias or to go all the way to a library, wasting your time searching the books you need, or in the worst case, discovering that the work is not available at the moment.
And what if people don’t even have access to (extensive) libraries? Until a month ago, I worked at a NGO in Brazil, which was an institution for development and social inclusion of low-income communities, based in a ‘favela’ in São Paulo. Although there was a library available for the students, it was a very small one, limited in its information. Access to digital, trustworthy information would be a great alternative. Another example: a few months ago my sister spoke to someone who distributed laptops in Africa, a project that reminded me of the One Laptop Per Child by Negroponte. The idea was a digital library for the locals, since actual books are really expensive and, compared to the Internet, very limited in their information. Instead of buying them books, investing in laptops would be much more profitable.
I agree that many students use the information as their only reference, without doubting the objectiveness of the content by, for example, comparing it to other sources. But as long as they are critical and aware of the fact that the information could be subjective, Wikipedia is very helpful to look things up. So instead of trying to get people back to the library, I think it’s better to improve the quality of the free encyclopedia by thinking of better regulating structures, increasing multi-lingual information and striving for equal access for everybody. It is also very important to instruct users how to deal with the information on Wikipedia – be critical, always check the sources, etc. This could be realized both by Wikipedia itself and at schools. Universities could encourage their students, who are developing their academic knowledge, to participate and share it instead of excluding this potential group from contribution by prohibiting the use of Wikipedia.
Although I see great possibilities for Wikipedia, I don’t want to be too enthusiastic. Much needs to be improved or changed first. This week for the first time I started to experiment on Wikipedia. After carefully reading ‘What is Wikipedia and what is Wikipedia not? and ‘How to write an objective entry’ I decided to write an entry about this NGO I worked for in São Paulo. Unfortunately, my first posting was immediately removed (‘Useless Content!’), and so were the majority of the contributions of my colleague students. The administers on Wikipedia, at least at the Dutch one, are very critical, not to say too critical. Or do they just not want others to contribute and post their entries? It seems very hard to ‘get into’ Wikipedia and be accepted as a reliable author.
Also, lately WikiTrust was introduced; a rating system that informs about author reputation and text trust. The longer an entry remains unchanged or unadapted, the more trustworthy it is. That seems a really good intention and should improve the credibility of the information. But on the other hand, there are certain people who can decide if a text remains unchanged by not accepting those changes and thus, determine what is rated as trustworthy. In this case WikiTrust would literally and figuratively color the text.
But the good thing is, people are starting to become more aware of these facts. More research is necessary to clarify what is really going on and how we could improve the quality and increase the amount of the (multilingual!) information on Wikipedia. Besides of some serious weaknesses, I see great potential in a free online encyclopedia serving information to all. Let’s give it a while to see whether it is just a matter of time for Wikipedia to become an actual encyclopedia or that the pessimists will turn out to be right…