Yes, Wikipedia is a joke, mainly to professionals, businessmen, scholars, scientists…basically anyone who received an undergraduate degree more than 10 years ago. Why is it a joke? Well, it’s on the internet. It can’t be accurate. I mean, who checks these things anyway? Some virgin sitting in his mom’s basement, underwear-clad, between World of Warcraft raids? It’s not like Jstor or EbscoHost, where the articles represented are peer reviewed and from established journals. Any schmo can contribute to Wikipedia, and any schmo can edit some other schmo’s contribution. If I want people to believe that the pyramids were built by time-travelling strippers, I can edit the page myself, and lo-and-behold! Snookie put the capstone on Khufu’s (that’s the big one).
But is that really accurate? Can I go around, willy-nilly, and alter the past wikipage by wikipage as I see fit? Nope. Wikipedia is monitored by people who care about the articles that they establish. Not only that , but generally the people who contribute to Wikipedia want to remain truthful, to add their voice in describing history. In a sense, Wikipedia is a historical document that can be added to and modified by anyone, as long as they have altruistic means.
Go on Wikipedia right now. Look up a news item that’s happened in the past week, and you’ll see big notifiers telling you that this is recent, subject to change, and may not be the most accurate information. All of the articles I have seen have footnotes to verify facts made within, and when information is ambiguous a keyboard jockey usually points out the error. Citation is the bread and butter of historians, and Wikipedia doesn’t fail to supply verification when necessary. In fact, it is a cardinal rule that before you can even create a Wikipedia page on certain topics, there MUST be at least one documented external source to substantiate its existence.
OK, so there are errors. Many errors. Some aren’t caught by the thought police guarding the Wiki-gateway, some are based on citations that are themselves flawed. That doesn’t take the value away from the resource; I mean, the Encyclopedia Britannica had errors (I know, I checked the Wikipedia entry). You aren’t supposed to use encyclopedias as sources anyway, just as stepping stones to gain a broader sense of a topic and perhaps find actual material that you can use. What’s the difference if it came from the pen of James Bryce or the keyboard of Larry Dudemann? Are Larry’s facts any less valid than learned historians?
Wikipedia represents something big in the world society. It’s not just an encyclopedia; it’s an ethnological record of what is important to whom and when, it’s a historiographical database that will illustrate how understanding of the past changes as time passes, and it’s a community of people who are dedicated to recording their world as accurately and as unbiased as possible.
Yeah, Wikipedia is a joke now. Professors will tell their students to treat it like the plague, highschoolers will deny they used it for researching their science reports, and geeks will continue to minimize the editing window when their girlfriend walks into the room. I don’t think that’s going to last too long, though; eventually Wikipedia may replace a paper encyclopedia, and thanks to dedicated contributors it will be more accurate to boot. Then only the Wikipedia editors will be laughing, but only as they repair the time-travelling stripper graffiti placed on the Great Pyramids article.
Because we all know they were really built by aliens.