Wikipedia at 10: Plenty of fans, even among critics
Wikipedia turns 10 years old this week. In that decade, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit has become part of our cultural fabric.
We called out to our fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter, and asked them to tell us the most interesting thing they learned through Wikipedia.
Here's a sampling of what they had to say:
"I found out that an old boyfriend of mine had been named the minister of the Interior -- in Greece," says Sharol Gauthier of Salt Lake City.
"Switzerland is roughly the size of San Bernardino County in Southern California," says Josh Winn of San Diego.
And Ashley Sapp of Evansville, Ill., says she used Wikipedia to learn about "the legend of the Cactus Cat, which is a prickly, catlike beast who cuts open cacti and drinks the fermented juice, becomes drunk and howls through the night."
The Trust Issue
From curious minutiae to detailed histories, there is some great information on Wikipedia -- but it's hard to get a consensus on how much trust readers should put into the site.
After all, there have been several well-publicized cases of the online encyclopedia being used to post erroneous information.
Melvin Davis III, a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, says that in high school, his teachers told him never to use Wikipedia. "But now, professors are saying things like, if you can find another reputable source to back up what you find on Wikipedia, that's completely fine."
Still, teachers and librarians tend to be especially leery of the site.
"I kind of -- as a professional researcher -- question the value of using a site like that," says NPR reference librarian Kee Malesky, "when you don't have the basic trust that this was done to be a helpful thing, and that the information is accurate and up to date and dependable."
Malesky is well-known throughout NPR for her strong reservations about Wikipedia. She even keeps her own running document of the site's flubs.
"It's called, 'So You Think Wikipedia Is OK,' " she says with a laugh.
That's not to say that Malesky is absolutely opposed to the concept of a free encyclopedia. She says the site can be a good starting place for reference links or to get the gist of a topic.
"But I don't know how you deal with the fact that anybody can -- and unfortunately often does -- insert incorrect material for what appear to be malicious reasons," Malesky says.
Wikipedia Finds Its Audience
Andrew Lih is a Wikipedia enthusiast and insider -- a so-called Wikipedian -- and professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Lih says that about five years ago, there was a perfect storm: Wikipedia began saturating Google results, and several high-profile errors forced Wikipedia to pull back from its completely free and open editing policy. Now most people can edit most things, most of the time.
That has cut down on some of the problems, but the site's content is still inherently unreliable. Lih says given that fact, most people find the site's articles to be more reliable than they expect. And Wikipedia spawned a new skepticism.
"People started to look at how reliable Britannica was and start to really fact-check their articles," he says. "They start to look at should we be trusting The New York Times as much, even NPR, BBC, these kind of folks."
In 2005, Nature published a study that found that in science articles, Wikipedia had four errors, to Britannica's three -- a finding that Britannica has fervently contested.
Lih says the English-language site has plateaued at 3.5 million articles. Looking forward, Wikipedia needs to figure out how to keep expanding. One way to do that is by funding programs that take Wikipedia's content off the Internet, whether it's by DVD or CD, on mobile devices, or in printed matter.
New Ways To Share Information
Wikipedia has also helped reshape the way people collaborate, especially over long distances and through language barriers.
Gregory Crane, a classics professor at Tufts University who also holds a post in the computer science department, says the site has influenced his work.
Crane spoke to NPR en route to working with colleagues at Egypt's University of Cairo. The school has a huge classics department, but until now, they haven't had much contact with U.S. scholars.
"There are other ways of collaborating that transcend language and culture," Crane says. "And I don't think we would be exploring these ways had Wikipedia not challenged us to rethink how knowledge could be organized, and who could contribute." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.