Most professors want students to continue to avoid Wikipedia like the plague. Almost every syllabi I’ve ever skimmed on the first day of class said that the site does not count as a source in any bibliography for any assignment. Ever. Professionals and journalists too lament how the emerging blogosphere allows Joe Schmoe, who has no press credentials, to write anything as fact without being held accountable, thereby skirting around the traditional information gatekeepers. Still, the popular online encyclopedia says a lot about the future of the Internet and information.
Academics’ disdain for Wikipedia is legitimate to an extent. We shouldn’t necessarily rely on one page for all our information.The evolution of Wikipedia, however, shows that people demand the same order and bureaucracy in the digital age that they require in everyday society. As much as we brandish our First Amendment rights, there is a resistance against user-generated content being uncensored. Wikipedia is already going in a direction where its users are expected to cite their sources. Eventually the site could become just as reliable as an academic journal.
Further proof that Wikipedia is susceptible to intervention and not just an academic Lord of the Flies free-for-all occurred last week when two Germans convicted of murdering an actor sued Wikipedia for publishing their names on the site. According to German privacy law, criminals are granted anonymity in the news after they have paid their debt to society. The two men, who have served their sentence, want Wikipedia to grant them the anonymity they are given back home — pitting American First Amendment rights against other countries’ laws.
Though the outcome hasn’t been decided, the case shows that the information posted by anyone on Wikipedia is not immune to being challenged. Wikipedia’s content is now subject to the law, and other institutions. For example, during the period of journalist Daniel Pearl’s abduction, Wikipedia honored The New York Times’ request that no one write of his kidnapping. NYT felt that such news would only further endanger Pearl. Not only did Wikipedia participate in this unprecedented media blackout, but the editors also went in and revised information to make Pearl appear more sympathetic toward the Muslim faith, so as to appease his kidnappers.
Online articles have begun linking to Wikipedia. One article I was reading on Slate about physiognomy directed me to Wikipedia’s definition of the art. Though our professors might still scorn the site, newspapers – which are supposed to be the ultimate source of credibility – are now entrusting Wikipedia to give readers accurate information.
And as of August, Wikipedia editors control all the information. Though anyone can still go in and update a page, the changes don’t show up until an editor has reviewed and approved the revision.
This democratic information age is mirroring a real life democratic society. The people’s voices still matter, but gatekeepers are springing up to bring order. Some people have cried out against this new Wikipedia filter, the way some people desire limited government.
Though Wikipedia is still riddled with errors and isn’t the most reliable source, the direction it is aiming for indicates that online information can only be entirely unrestricted for so long.