Wikipedia: The Pop-Culture Bible

24 August 2009

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My love affair with Wikipedia began – like most others in my life – with alcohol.

In this case it involved an $11 bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.  No occasion, just another Thursday night spent like every other inner-north bike-riding 20-something: watching Mad Men on SBS TV.

I was contemplating January Jones’ frock when I realised I didn’t know where “that guy” was from. Not Don Draper, but the “other guy”.

I yelled the question to my both patient and resourceful partner.  The instant reply was: “His name is Vincent and he is a child actor from ‘The Indian in the Cupboard.’”

The information did not impress me, nor make me think so highly of Mad Men’s casting department.  The fascinating thing was the speed at which it was delivered.  

No more trawling through countless Google entries for me!  My opinion of Wikipedia was transformed;  I was smitten.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, and the largest and fastest growing of its kind. Up until that night, the only way it had enriched my life was by causing every stuffy university lecturer I’d ever had to pucker their faces and scoff at it.

That’s because Wikipedia is a massive no-no in the land of credible research.  Instead of paid writers, researchers and editors, the content is entirely user-generated.  Which means everyone from my socially inept upstairs neighbour to the local dentist can all chip in their two-cents worth.

This sometimes leads to the website being used as an online battleground on, say, the origins of hummus (is it Arabic or Israeli?) and controversial information on the merits of scientology. (In May Wikipedia blocked the Church of Scientology from altering entries.)

For traditionalists, such skirmishes have only raised more questions about Wikipedia’s credibility. But things are looking up.

Earlier this month, global Wikipedia representatives flew to Canberra for a world-first meeting to discuss the future of the site.  The meeting included 170 people from Australia’s most important cultural institutions: our art galleries, libraries, and national museums.  

The goal was to figure out how to make the expertise and information stored in their dusty archives easily accessible to the world through Wikipedia.

This idea of collecting the best of minds everywhere was actually the original idea of the creators of Wikipedia.

It was launched in 2001 by a couple of cyber geeks whose first foray into the net-boom was using peer-to-peer technology to link together their two passions: Pamela Anderson and Anna Kournikova.  Though I’m not quite sure how staring at these two leads one to planning encyclopedias, but I suppose we all get our inspiration from different places, so who am I to judge?

The ambitious students wanted to create an open source encyclopedia project that combined the sum-total of human wisdom.

This is exactly what makes Wikipedia special today.

Everyone contributing to the site has an equal voice, irrespective of their title, credentials or scholarly achievements. There are equal editing rights, and also a wiki-court and arbitration committee to penalise fraudsters. 

The result?  A site that is accessible, global, completely free and easy enough for even my grandmother to use.

And all that hoopla about it being unreliable is quickly being overshadowed.

The New York Times recently said that Wikipedia’s information is now improved, fact-checked, footnoted and enhanced over time. And maybe not all the information it contains is highbrow, but you couldn’t dare call it limited.

Some of the most visited searches this month include: World War Two, swine flu, John Hughes, India, Miley Cyrus, Barack Obama, Metallica, socialism and….vaginas.  Wikipedia is a realistic reflection of what we care about and what we know, unmediated and unbiased.

All-in-all a pretty damn versatile piece of online real estate!  

Liam Wyatt, Vice-President of Wikipedia’s parent company, Wikimedia, said that Wikipedia is the fourth-most visited site in the world, and the largest education resource ever.

When questioned by The Age about the site’s much publicised errors and controversy he said, “Wikipedia and Wiki projects do have mistakes. We know that, and we actually celebrate that. We don’t pretend that wiki sites are error free or perfect because they are constantly evolving processes.  There’s an old phrase:  People who like sausages or obeying the law shouldn’t see either being made, and the same goes for encyclopedias – it’s a messy process but the outcome is really good.”

The Guardian acknowledges it as one of the biggest open repositories of knowledge in the world.

The newspaper reported that Wikipedia is due to hit the 3 million mark of articles any day now.

This equals 25 times more information than the next-largest English language encyclopedia – The Britannica.

But I bet The Britannica would struggle to keep me updated on Mad Men. 

Sarah Dailey is a final-year Journalism student at La Trobe University.