The jokes have been predictable today. “Oh no,” your neighborhood Web comic says. “Wikipedia has gone dark! Where will I find my erroneous information?”
(Please don’t write me to claim this joke. It’s not original. There are, as Mike said on The Young Ones, as-yet-undiscovered tribes in the heart of the Peruvian jungle who knew you were going to say that. (That’s not a SOPA violation, is it?))
Aside from the lazy comics, I’ve also seen snide comments from journalists. “Oh, you don’t really use that site, do you?”
Yes, I do. Every day. Multiple times per day. I have a shortcut set up in Chrome so that I can type “wp (whatever)” and instantly get to whatever I’m seeking.
Oh, but anyone can change Wikipedia! I can make it say Bill Clinton is a duck!
Yes, you can. And in the few seconds before someone else changes Wikipedia, perhaps a couple of idiots will see that and think the United States was governed by something that quacks. They may even wonder how a duck can be involved in a sex scandal.
Here’s the thing — if you read something that sounds fishy on Wikipedia, it’s quite easy to check it out. Good Wikipedia editors often include links to their sources.
So why not go to the original source?
If you know exactly what you need, and you just need to confirm it with a reputable source, great. But what if you don’t know what you need? Suppose you’ve been asked to write about someone and you don’t even know where to begin.
Let’s say you’ve been assigned to write about Ole Einar Bjorndalen. Not being European or me, you don’t know who he is.
Off to Wikipedia, where you can quickly discern the following …
- He has won nine Olympic medals in biathlon.
- He swept the biathlon gold medals in Salt Lake City 2002.
- He also won a cross-country skiing World Cup race.
- He married another biathlete.
- In 2006, he tested a new ski boot.
- He doesn’t seem to be doing quite as well this year as he has in the past.
Is your story done? Of course not. Do you have a general idea of who he is? Yes. Do you have specific facts, such as specific numbers of medals and so forth, that you can quickly verify by following a couple of links? Yes. You also have a couple of story ideas — a new ski boot and what appears to be a decline this season.
You could even click on “biathlon” and try to get a general sense of the sport and its history. You might even learn that it’s staggeringly popular in Germany. Or that it has roots in military exercises.
What would you have done before Wikipedia? You probably would’ve asked around of your buddies. “Hey, have you heard of a guy named Bjorg … Bjornday … he’s a bitrathlete or something?” And then you would’ve eventually found someone who thinks he remembers that he won a bunch of medals or something.
And that’s sooooooo much better than checking with Wikipedia.
Basically, Wikipedia is just the same thing as asking around of your friends. Except that your “friends” are millions and millions of people with a collective expertise in almost everything.
But by all means … ignore all that. You’re a journalist, after all. You already know it all, right?