Know Such Thing as a Free Lunch

We are living in an unprecedented era of human existence. We are nearing the ability to collect the sum of all human knowledge and distribute it instantly to everyone for free. We're not there yet, but we are taking major steps towards that goal.

Wikipedia is an online collaborative knowledge resource that is playing a major role in this effort. It is by no means the only piece of the puzzle, nor the biggest, nor the most important, but it is worth looking at because it is a piece that you can have direct influence on.

Wikipedia was born back in 1995. Named wiki after the quick airport shuttle buses in Hawaii. The idea was to create a quick to edit, quick to access source of information. The idea actually goes back further than that, back to the 60s with project Xanadu, but that's a topic for another day.

Wikipedia has grown over the last few years to encompass a sphere of knowledge much larger than any encyclopedia. If you try to search for any information on the web, there's a good chance that a Wikipedia entry on the subject will be on the first page.

There are of course plenty of criticisms of Wikipedia, some of which have more merit than others. For example, anyone may write or edit any article in Wikipedia. I'm always amazed, when I tell people this, how universal the response is. Invariably, people ask, “How can you trust anything in it?” What does it say about us that we assume that any information that can be edited by anyone must be inaccurate?

Leaving aside the humanist philosophical debate for the moment and looking at the empirical evidence that has been done studying Wikipedia and you'll find that on average there are not substantially more errors in Wikipedia than say the Encyclopedia Britannica .

That's not to say that you should implicitly trust everything in Wikipedia; nor the Encyclopedia Britannica for that matter. It's just good practice to check your answers from more than one source. But most things, like say knowing who played Pink in the movie version of the The Wall will be accurate if not necessarily precise.

Probably the most pertinent criticism of Wikipedia falls under its misuse by those with an agenda. For example I refer you to the edit war on John Kerry's page over whether his Purple Heart was awarded for a wound or a minor wound. A politically motivated edit/revert war if ever there was one.

Another example was the editing war that occurred the night that Michael Jackson died. Unbeknownst to most people that use Wikipedia there are people who's job it is it verify edits. As fast as people were updating the singer's page the editors were undoing the edits (also a little known feature) until conformation was obtained.

These things also help to highlight the measures that have been put in place over the years by Wikipedia. Disallowing anonymous edits. A three revert/edit rule followed by a 24 hour cooling off period. Edit notices to article watchers. General vandalism discouragement from a league of editors.

Even with all these measures in place, however, malicious edits do occur. Just as vandalism occurs in the real world. Unlike the real world, however, on Wikipedia vandalism is fixed with a keystroke and everyone has the ability to fix it.

Caveat emptor applies, especially to politically sensitive pages, but don't chuck the baby out with the bathwater. Instead stake a claim in the race to record human knowledge. Is there a subject about which you're an expert? Most of us are in one thing or another. Your home town? Your last name or genealogy? You name it. Pick a subject and check Wikipedia's accuracy. Found an error? Fix it. No page on the subject? Add it in. Consider it your contribution to humanity's largest knowledge undertaking in history.

Stuff you didn't know about Wikipedia: There's a random article link on the main page; click it to learn something unexpected. Every page has a history tab where you can see what was edited and by whom. This has proved embarrassing in the past when certain high profile political figures were caught modifying pages about themselves to remove items they preferred we all forget - unfortunately the web's memory is longer than an eidetic elephant's. There's a watcher's link on each page were you can see who will get notified if a change is made. You are free to copy, distribute, transmit and adapt anything you find on Wikipedia. Information is truly free.

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Happy Computing.

1. Giles, Jim (2005-12-15). "Internet encyclopedias go head to head". Nature 438: 900–901. doi:10.1038/438900a
2. Bob Geldoff