Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wiki cool! Or, Adventures In Wikipedia

Wikis are the topic of this week's second post. Before I started this class the only wiki I had ever contributed to was, of course, Wikipedia and that was only a minor one-time contribution. If you must know, I contributed a vital piece of information regarding the British cult sci-fi TV show Doctor Who. Specifically, that he has tried and failed to get to two 20th-century rock concerts that we know of--Elvis Presley in the 1950s and Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1979--before intergalactic evildoers diverted the good Doctor and his time machine. Pretty useless I know. So this leads me to wonder where exactly Wikipedia's true value lies. Is it in providing complete and accurate research information on relevant social, political and academic topics? Or is it merely a wonderland in which every detail-obsessed fanboy or -girl can go nuts over their favorite TV show/superhero/rock band? The amount of detailed information collected on Star Wars alone is staggering.

For me Wikipedia is my go-to source for all things pop culture. Has a celebrity just died? I head over to Wikipedia. Have I just discovered a new band? I'll look them up on Wikipedia. Did my current celebrity crush just break up with his girlfriend? Sweet. He did. I never use Wikipedia for serious academic purposes due to the potential for misinformation, although I did consult it briefly once to see how The Merchant of Venice ends in order to make a minor point in a short essay. Wikipedia is a lot of fun, but I approach it with a constant underlying mistrust of the information it contains. Because that information can come from anybody sitting at home in front of their computer.

Wikis in a controlled academic setting can be very valuable indeed. I believe that, despite the best intentions, when the information-gathering forum is opened up to include anyone and everyone--that's when you have to take everything you read with a grain of salt. Because Wikipedia is written by human beings. And human beings can be jerks. They can also be wrong on a number of occasions. There's something irresistible about seeing one's contribution in print or online; this brings the potential for someone to rush to post information. Perhaps a date is wrong or some other piece of information wasn't researched. Wiki's innovation is the ability to remove or correct data as well as add it. But who's watching the watchers? I have a very cynical outlook at times, and I often wonder if celebrities are writing/adding to their own Wikipedia entries. I keep thinking of the Simpsons episode where Snake the criminal is outraged because someone edited his Wikipedia entry. As a result he wants them eliminated.

Here is a list of some of my recent Wikipedia searches, just as a matter of interest:

Michael Crichton. He was married six times. Who knew?
Hellboy. The comic book/movie franchise. As a newcomer, it was a good place to get an overview of what's going on.
Manhasset, NY. This is my hometown. I just wanted to see what Wiki had to say about it.

I did one other search recently to see just how all-encompassing Wikipedia is. I have a friend in Scotland who is what I'll refer to as a minor regional celebrity. He's a DJ for a radio station that broadcasts all over the North of Scotland. Just out of curiosity one day, I typed in his name to see if he has a Wikipedia entry. He does.. I haven't asked him yet if he wrote his own entry, but i just might.

Should I help Wikipedia by expanding it?

I think not.

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