My congratulations to all the Wikipedia volunteers for doing such a good job.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Shudder! Wikipedia foe turns out to be a fan

March 21, 2010

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2010, The Post-Standard

   If Wikipedia has a hit list, I'm on it.
   Ever since condemning the free online encyclopedia in a column six years ago, I've been raked up and down through the online coals nearly every day. A monitoring service I use called Trackle (at www.trackle.com) shows how often Wikipedia fans hold me up as an example of irresponsible journalism. I used to check Trackle's list every day, but that got boring; the complaints were all the same.
   Basically, these folks said I didn't know what I was talking about.
   Oddly enough, they might be right. Let me explain.
   The issue I raised in that newspaper column was whether Wikipedia was authoritative, and therefore whether it was trustworthy as a reliable source of factual information.
   How anyone could disagree with that point was hard for me to understand. Wikipedia (at www.wikipedia.org) itself says it's not authoritative. Here's what Wikipedia says about its own trustworthiness, as I quoted in that 2004 column:
   "Nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by professionals who are knowledgeable in the particular areas of expertise necessary to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information about any subject in Wikipedia."
   So Wikipedia is not authoritative. So what?
   It turns out that's the question I've been asking myself for the last few months. I found myself reevaluating how I felt about Wikipedia after I wandered into a Wikipedia description of a lip-synching scandal and started following links. The links went to dozens of other entries in Wikipedia -- all of them interesting and well written.
   That evening, I looked up Wikipedia's entry on Padre Island, Texas. It was fascinating. I followed links on barrier islands, on ocean currents, on early explorers. I hadn't had so much fun since the day I discovered a stack of Mechanix Illustrated magazines in my uncle's basement when I was a kid.
   No, Wikipedia is not authoritative. Neither was my grandfather when he talked about politics. But I listened to him for hours on end when I was growing up, when he talked about working on the Rondack Railroad as a teenager or about watching his son, my dad, go off to war.
   I suppose "authoritative" is what journalists secretly dream about. Every source is going to be authoritative. But life doesn't work that way. Sometimes we want to sit by the fire and listen to adult conversation. Or read interesting accounts of things we want to know about.
   No doubt that's not authoritative enough for scholarly research. Or even for homework. But I know this: For a guy looking for an explanation of how tidal basins form, Wikipedia is a treasure. My congratulations to all the Wikipedia volunteers for doing such a good job.