You can kind find anything you want to buy on eBay, a site where anybody with something to sell can put up an ad. And you can find any information you want on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia where anyone can write or edit any article, no matter how much or how little they know about the subject. Wikipedia is the new eBay for facts.
Wikipedia was launched in 2001, and over the past 5 years its communally-generated “data” base has mushroomed. The site now boasts close to 1.5 million English-language entries, with almost a million more in such languages as French, German, Chinese, Polish, and Dutch, and it's growing every day. Wikipedia has become the international flea market of information.
Anybody with a laptop, a wi-fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks can write and post a Wikipedia entry, and while some skeptics question the reliability of articles generated by this host of anonymous amateurs, in a few short years Wikipedia has become the go-to site for most people seeking information about any topic, major or obscure.
Some information on Wikipedia actually turns out to be OK. A report in the journal Nature last year found no significant difference in the reliability of science articles between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica: four mistakes per science article in Wikipedia compared to three per article in the online version of the Britannica. Most of the errors in both publications were minor ones.
I myself found a minor error in a Wikipedia entry: the encyclopedia reported that a particular dictionary had been published in 1935, but my own copy of that dictionary was dated 1934. So I corrected this mistake, just to see how the democratic process where everyone’s an expert actually worked. In seconds, my trivial correction appeared online. But a few days later a Wikipedia watchdog reversed my correction because, by relying on a printed copy of the dictionary, I had done “original research.” Wikipedia only accepts second-hand verification for its fact-checking. A few minutes later he sent a follow-up note saying that he’d reinstated my correction, since he’d confirmed the dictionary’s publication date, not by checking with the Library of Congress, a reasonable place to go to see when something's been published, but on a site discussing urban legends.
Issues of reliability aside, a lot of internet enthusiasts see sites like Wikipedia as heralding the death of the tyrannical read-only text, where the writer always has the last word. On Wikipedia, no entry is ever final, and every article can be revised by any reader at any time. On the internet, and particularly on sites like Wikipedia, readers are now writers, and authors no longer need authority to publish.
It’s true that thanks to computers and the net, more people than ever are not only writing, they're finding an audience of interested readers online. It’s true as well that whatever technology they’ve used, writers have always been subject to correction, even after their work was printed, inked on parchment, or carved into stone tablets – we all make mistakes, even Homer nods.
But it’s ironic that an authority like Wikipedia, which purports to be a reference work, prefers online proof to the real-world evidence of a well-regarded, carefully-edited, conventionally-printed reference work. And it's even more ironic that Wikipedia fact-checkers put their faith not in hard copy, but in virtual text: if it’s not online, for them, it’s just not real. Finally, I’m not reassured by Wikipedia’s reliance on post-publication correction, because no one can fact-check millions of articles whose text itself is in constant flux. Wikipedia is effectively encouraging writers to “shoot first, ask questions later.”
Wikipedia can be useful, so long as readers keep in mind that its coverage is neither complete nor exhaustive. But dazzled by the speed and convenience of a Wikipedia search, far too many readers have become content that what they find on Wikipedia is good enough, even if that turns out to mean it’s worth exactly what they’ve paid for it. Even worse, they’re tempted to believe that if it’s not on Wikipedia, either it didn’t happen, or it’s not important enough to pursue any further. I know this for a fact. I found it on Wikipedia.