Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wikipediagilisticexpialidocious, part 1 of 2

As a writer, I am on Wikipedia daily. If an article is properly cited, it can be as—if not more—useful than many books. At times, I trust it more than brand name encyclopedias.

One study found Wikipedia as accurate as Britannica.

Yet some editors and writers’ guidelines ask writers to avoid using Wikipedia as a source because it is “user-written.”

But users are people, too. To expand, here are six-and-a-half weasons why Wikipedia is worthwhile.

Amateur doesn’t mean unprofessional

We all know good cooks who don’t work in high-end restaurants. And many of us have been crushed by good tennis players who’ve never appeared in the US Open, or even a town tournament.

Likewise, there are plenty of good writers (and researchers) who don’t do it for a living, yet luckily, plenty of them volunteer their time and minds for Wikipedia.

Books get it wrong, too

Conversely, a published book is not always a polished book. Despite best efforts, books still go to print with mistakes. I’ve read them. And written one or two. (But only one or two.) Writers have to doublecheck all facts, whether from a book or a site or the inside of a Snapple bottle cap.

Multiple brains for the price of none

A typical book has one editor (and a copy editor, but here I’m talking about mistakes in content, not grammar). An article on Wikipedia can have any number of editors. While that may indeed mean more chance for errors, at the same time it suggests a greater chance that more errors will be fixed.

Say a magazine writer turns in a 1,000-word article with 10 mistakes and his editor catches 8. The scale with a Wikipedia article is almost always greater—say 10 writers build a 1,000-word article with a total of 28 (initial) mistakes. Yet it may attract as many—if not more—editors as writers. Through group effort, all mistakes may be weeded out. While the “amateur” article had more than twice as many initial mistakes, it ends up with none; meanwhile, the “professional” article still has two. And once published, print mistakes can’t be changed as quickly as Wikipedia mistakes.

A Wikipedia article is like a piece of bread on the ground. You can always count on not one but many ants to show up fast and go to work on it. Same with a Wikipedia article, subbing in editors for ants. (Not an insult. Ants are hard workers. Not to mention freakishly strong for their size.)

Consider this experiment. Writer A.J. Jacobs tested Wikipedia by posting an article on it with numerous deliberate errors. He felt the article had reached healthy condition two days and 373 edits later. Here’s the link (from Wikipedia itself).

Tomorrow: reasons 4 through 6½, including the scoop on the title of this post.

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