Wikipedia = End of the Search for Truth, or Just a Beginning?

by on January 22, 2009 · 6 comments

My problem with what Nick Carr is saying about Wikipedia here — as well as in his book The Big Switch — is that he always seems to assume that Wikipedia constitutes the totality of most searches for information online. I suppose it does for some people, but I have a hard time accepting the argument that everyone’s search for enlightenment ends there, even if Wikipedia does rank high in many search results today.

For me, Wikipedia is just a launch pad; a great starting point in the search for truth. I take much of what I read on Wikipedia with a large grain of salt, however, because I know not every entry is as trustworthy as others, and entries could change at any moment. But that’s true of much of what one finds online!  If one adopts a sort of caveat emptor attitude toward Wikipedia, and then uses it to seek out truth from alternative sources found in each entry, or from other searches, then were is the harm?  Only if one could show that the search for truth ends with Wikipedia would I be as concerned as Carr and other Internet pessimists and Wikipedia critics (like Lee Siegel and Andrew Keen). But I just don’t believe that is the case.

Moreover, it is impossible for me to believe that we have fewer authoritative sources of information at our disposal today than we did in the past.  When I was growing up in the 1970s and attending a tiny school in the middle of a rural Indiana cornfield, my version of Wikipedia was named “Mrs. Flowers.” She was the nice little old lady who ran our school’s library. When I began at search for information back then, I would often ask Mrs. Flowers to help me work my way through the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System to find whatever we had in stock at Winfield Elementary regarding astronauts and rockets (a particular boyhood obsession of mine). Our “search results” were pretty miserable. (I probably have more books in my basement right now than were in that school’s library!) We had Britannica on hand and would grab whatever we could there, and there was a book about the Mercury program and another about the moon landing, but there wasn’t much else. That  really was it. Our search was for enlightenment ended that quickly. No other books. No newspaper or magazine archives to search through (expect an incomplete set of National Geographic). No video or audio tapes. No computer software. Just nothing more.  Consequently, I think I checked out that same book about the Mercury program a dozen times before the 4th grade started.

Contrast that dismal state of affairs with the homework project I just helped my 1st grade daughter with, which required me to help her find out 3 interesting facts about Squanto. Did we stumble upon Wikipedia with our first Google search? Yep. Was that the end of it? Nope. There were 236,000 more search results for us to figure out how to sort through! So, I tried first jumping every 10 pages or so just to randomly see what else showed up, and then refined our search to see what other hits we could get. We spent over an hour just walking around cyberspace learning all sorts of fun facts about Squanto.

Nick Carr may have a different word for it, but I call this progress. And if he doesn’t like the fact that Wikipedia entries often come up first in most search results, than there’s an easy solution: Just skip those links and peruse the hundreds of thousands of hits that follow.

[Note: Tim has addressed similar Wikipedia criticsms here many times before, including Carr’s earlier rants about it.]

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