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Wowed by Wikipedia

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 16, 2006

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has come under fire recently for false statements in articles on many topics, some of the most outrageous accusations being leveled against targets ranging from Tony Blair to Ernest Hemingway. Despite its inconsistencies, Wikipedia deserves to be honored for its achievement.

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia written by everyday folks, and in more than 200 languages to boot. The idea is, you don’t need a degree to share information you have – just a keyboard. You can add to or edit existing articles, or create a new one for a topic that is not yet listed.

For this reason, it would take an enormous amount of manpower for Wikipedia administrators to comb through each new addition to check for authenticity. Thus, the same people who write Wikipedia also have to edit it.

If an article is thought to be biased, or incorrect, a Wikipedia user can file a complaint and the article will be tagged with a banner. While this can prove for some confusing – and sometimes just plain inaccurate articles – the positives far outweigh the negatives.

I have no way of comparing the amount of mistakes in a print encyclopedia to those on Wikipedia, and I’m not arguing that anyone can write an encyclopedia, I do think that taking advantage of technology in order to create a global database of knowledge is a wonderful and exciting idea.

Some of the recent fallacies included in articles have been rather harmless, such as David Beckham’s position being listed as “18th century Chinese goalkeeper” and the full name of England’s Prime Minister listed as “Tony ‘Whoop de-Doo’ Blair.”

Others have had more serious ramifications. An article on Ernest Hemingway gave him a fictional communist friend called “Henryk Batuta” – a mistake that lasted 15 months before the myth was debunked by Polish users. Another scandal has been politicians editing their biographies to portray them in a more favorable light, most notably when a summer intern of U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) removed from his article promises he had made to voters and not fulfilled.

Like any source of information, one cannot blindly believe what is stated. But Wikipedia is not a totally corrupt source of information. In fact, it is largely accurate and extensive. With proper skepticism, Wikipedia can be an invaluable tool.

You can go there for work, you can go there for fun. Just by looking at this week’s featured articles, you could have learned that the author of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” worked as a chicken shed cleaner, and that the Beatles recorded a version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in German called “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” or “Come, Give Me Your Hand.”

Wikipedia should be supported by its growing online community. It would be a shame for a wealth of information like this to be discredited because of a few goofballs who didn’t like “The Sun Also Rises.”