I have often used Wikipedia as an explanatory link for words or information that readers may want to know more about. This "live encyclopedia" has proven to be an astonishingly popular cultural phenomenon.
But is it knowledge?
Wikipedia remains a lumpy work in progress. The entries can read as though they had been written by a seventh grader: clarity and concision are lacking; the facts may be sturdy, but the connective tissue is either anemic or absent; and citation is hit or miss. Wattenberg and Viégas, of I.B.M., note that the vast majority of Wikipedia edits consist of deletions and additions rather than of attempts to reorder paragraphs or to shape an entry as a whole, and they believe that Wikipedia’s twenty-five-line editing window deserves some of the blame. It is difficult to craft an article in its entirety when reading it piecemeal, and, given Wikipedians’ obsession with racking up edits, simple fixes often take priority over more complex edits. Wattenberg and Viégas have also identified a “first-mover advantage”: the initial contributor to an article often sets the tone, and that person is rarely a Macaulay or a Johnson. The over-all effect is jittery, the textual equivalent of a film shot with a handheld camera.
What can be said for an encyclopedia that is sometimes right, sometimes wrong, and sometimes illiterate? When I showed the Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam his entry, he was surprised to find it as good as the one in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He was flabbergasted when he learned how Wikipedia worked. “Obviously, this was the work of experts,” he said. In the nineteen-sixties, William F. Buckley, Jr., said that he would sooner “live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” On Wikipedia, he might finally have his wish. How was his page? Essentially on target, he said. All the same, Buckley added, he would prefer that those anonymous two thousand souls govern, and leave the encyclopedia writing to the experts.
[More from a really good article]
Actually one of the best introductions to how Wikipedia works is this brilliant spoof by Stephen Colbert. (Worth watching)