Blog post

Are you a Wikipedia dinosaur?

By Anthony J. Bradley | March 30, 2011 | 8 Comments

Are you still challenging Wikipedia as a credible information source? If so you might as well get a dinosaur tattoo on your forehead.

I was having a discussion (a civil argument) with a coworker the other day and we engaged in a definitional dispute. So I pulled out my iPhone and went … as Microsoft would say, “to the cloud” (or what most of us call the internet) Smile 

I pulled up Wikipedia and even before I began quoting, my debate opponent said, “You can’t use Wikipedia as a source” with palpable disdain in his tone. You simply can’t discount Wikipedia anymore. Even if you put aside the studies that show that Wikipedia is just as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica and that graffiti is usually corrected within minutes, there is one main reason why you can’t dismiss it. And that reason is transparency. Anyone can look at any Wikipedia article and examine the sources it is based upon. Anyone can look at the history of changes made to an article. It is all laid out before you.

Ok, so here’s the caveat. Although you can’t dispute Wikipedia as a credible information source you certainly can challenge any particular article. A wise user of Wikipedia always examines its referenced sources for their weight. If sources are lacking or outdated then the value of the article declines. But Wikipedia is also pretty good at flagging articles that are not well sourced.

So here is a tip for those who use Wikipedia but operate in a dinosaur filled environment. Don’t directly reference Wikipedia. Examine and reference the underlying sources of the Wikipedia article and use those. One of the very valuable aspects of Wikipedia is as an aggregator of source information by topic.

So here is a quiz for you. What are the three core aspects of Wikipedia that make it the information powerhouse that it is?

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  • David McCoy says:

    What are the three core aspects of Wikipedia that make it the information powerhouse that it is?

    I’m not sure if these are what you’re thinking, but I’d say:

    (1) Transparency – What you see is what you’ve got, so to speak. You bring this point out in your post, so I’ll take that freebie.

    (2) Breadth – No stone left untouched. If I want to read about The Great Gildersleeve radio show, someone somewhere has written him up. An information powerhouse is only as good as its span. Wikipedia is a broad-spectrum information source.

    (3) Mass, collective action – Not only is Wikipedia’s content base broad, the contributor base is too. Combine that with transparency, and no one can pull the wool over your eyes for long. You can’t have a conspiracy when there are millions of eyes watching and fingers ready to correct mistakes. So, unless we are collectively delusional (and we are about somethings), the masses will bring a common middle ground that represents the ‘least offensive truth.’

    That’s my color commentary :> How close did I get?

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Nice job David, you got two out of three. I won’t yet give away which two. People might be intimidated by the quiz since I’ve had hundreds of people read this post and yet only you have responded. 🙂

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Ok, so it seems people are not in the mood for a quiz. So here are the three. David was right with #1 and #3. I would lump his #2 in with #3 since breadth is a likely outcome of the collective efforts from mass collaboration. So here they are:
    1. Mass collaboration – millions of people building the worlds largest and fastest changing excyclopedia… effectively changing what it means to be one.
    2. Transparency or the ability of anyone to view the sources (writers and references) and assess them or even correct them. This provides the incredible rate of change we see in Wikipedia.
    3. Hyperlinking. We all seem to take this for granted these days since it is such a foundation of the Web. But Wikipedia is so great with articles linked to other articles that it provides an incredibly rich knowledge seeking experience. It turns a bunch of independently multi-authored articles into an almost unimaginably robust network of knowledge.

  • One thing that would greatly increase value of Wikipedia and put it clearly ahead of Britannica is semantic analysis layer, i.e. ability to get actual answers to specific questions.

    It seems to be not too far away, though, based on what IBM demonstrated with its DeepQA / Watson.

  • Donald Teed says:

    Hyperlinking isn’t really new with wikipedia, it has been standard to anything present on the web since HTML documents have been on the web.

    Actually, I was disappointed with the hyperlinks within Wikipedia the first time I used a wikipedia article. On most sites, if I click on a blue highlighted term within an article, it discusses the term within the context of the subject at hand. For example, if I was on a typical page on the web discussing motherboards and it had the term battery highlighted, I could expect it would expand on the issues of the battery in the motherboard context. Wikipedia would do the opposite, and bring me to a generic page about batteries. This is particularly useless when links are made for dates. If a wikipedia article discusses something and mentions a historical date, I want to click on that and drill down to more detail on that date and event in the present context. Instead, I see a page talking about anything anywhere that happened on that date. Completely useless. In those instances it is an unencyclopedia.

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Donald, of course hyperlinking isn’t new to Wikipedia. Hyperlinking is what makes the Web a web. But how many web sites really don’t capitalize on the power of content hyperlinking? By far most don’t. How many software applications don’t? Again, the vast majority. I would argue that in most, if not all, sites that discuss motherboards the term battery would not be highlighted at all. Sure, Wikipedia content hyperlinking is not perfect. I personally have not had the negative experiences you have. I would also make two critical points. First, you personally could fix it. You could write an article on motherboard batteries and link it in. It is a matter of content not a matter of the functionality of the environment. Second, identify a better alternative. What scalable and easily accessed source of knowledge provides a more rich content discovery experience?

  • Bill Malik says:

    The factors that make Wikipedia the information powerhouse that it is … hmm … there seems to be a bit of bias in that question. As a long-time dinosaur herder, it seems that the Internet in general fits into social media because of its low, low price, ubiquity, and the persistent whiff of scandal and uncertainty. The geek who was always right in high school wasn’t popular, but everyone enjoyed the sarcastic guy who always had a sharp opinion.
    Wikipedia demonstrates that the value of any information source is directly proportionate to the credentials of the individual assembling that information. As such, in matters of generally agreed-to fact, Wikipedia is usually good enough. When did Columbus discover the New World? Wikipedia says … and that will settle the bet at the bar. But if I were defending my doctoral thesis on cultural disruption in meso-America caused by the Spanish colonization, I don’t think I’d risk citing Wikipedia. I might use it to find a primary source, only.

    Does the information powerhouse Gartner rely on Wikipedia for its research?

    Best regards,

  • Anthony J. Bradley says:

    Bill, great points!
    1. I listed three things that make Wikipedia a powerhouse but you added a 4th critical one. It is free! I can’t believe I left that out! Thanks!
    2. Not using Wikipedia as a source for your Phd is less a statement on Wikipedia’s value but that of an encyclopedia. Encyclopedias are not really meant as an information source for your primary area of expertise. I’m sure you wouldn’t use any encyclopedia.
    3. No, Gartner does not use Wikipedia as a primary source of information but we may reference it to define common IT terms rather than make up our own definition. But again, Gartner doesn’t use any encyclopedia as a primary source of research.

    However, I would argue that transparency is more important than credentials. Wikipedia intentionally didn’t put any emphasis on credentials. No matter who you are you can contribute value to Wikipedia as long as you can back up your contribution with strong evidence (in the form of source references). Transparency is not the same as credentials. Transparency is critical to healthy social media and mass collaboration. Credentials can be a killer. As the sponsor of a collaborative community you have to look out for people who “pull rank” in the form of citing their credentials. It can stifle collaboration by making people reluctant to contribute for fear that their credentials aren’t good enough. Remember that in a collaborative community it is the community that determines who is most valuable not title, degree, resume, etc. The best argument wins. And the community determines who’s is the best.