How long have you been using the web? Since the mid-90s when it was first popularized by services like AOL and Compuserve, and ISPs like Mindspring? Back when the first and only browser was Netscape and a 19.2kb modem was considered cutting-edge fast?
Unless your use of the Internet goes back that far, you probably can’t remember a time when the Internet didn’t include Wikipedia. I’m old enough -just barely, of course- that I remember being endlessly absorbed in copies of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia, or Encyclopedia Britannica. I also had access to the first few editions of Microsoft Encarta. For those of you who don’t remember it, it was a well-developed product that made use of the tremendous storage capacity (for that time) of the CD. And it was a hell of a lot cheaper than the rows and rows of bound volumes that would never receive software or information updates and usually required a dedicated bookshelf.
Fast forward to January 2001, when Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger founded Wikipedia with this simple and compelling idea:
Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.
I can’t state my opinion of that idea any more clearly- that has always been the kind of world I want to live in.
I also wanted to live in a world that included us being on the moon in grand style, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and that had flying cars like we were promised in every other issue of Popular Science in the 1970s. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess. But at least Wikipedia exists.
The service has its critics. The quality of the information, resulting from the ease with which it can be edited, has been questioned. Academics have lamented receiving essays and written reports from students who went no further than Wikipedia to do their research.
For the first concern, much has been done to establish standards for citations, references, and a stricter review process. And where an article is not properly cited or does not meet quality standards, you’ll usually see warnings explaining those problems. In fact, Wikipedia itself is completely open about those criticisms in this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on… Wikipedia:
Although the policies of Wikipedia strongly espouse verifiability and a neutral point of view, critics of Wikipedia accuse it of systemic bias and inconsistencies (including undue weight given to popular culture); and because it favors consensus over credentials in its editorial processes, its reliability and accuracy are also targeted. Other criticisms center on its susceptibility to vandalism and the addition of spurious or unverified information; though some scholarly work suggests that vandalism is generally short-lived. A 2005 investigation in Nature showed that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”.
The critique from academics about students taking shortcuts is valid, but I view that as a question of pedagogy and student self-motivation, not a problem of the mere fact that Wikipedia exists. The same problem existed when I was in school and the easiest source of information was the encyclopedia at the school library or at home. I am by no means endorsing laziness. Professors and teachers are definitely right to expect students to do their own research, come to their own conclusions, and find their own voice.
On balance though, this question should be easily answered- is a better to have an Internet where a growing repository of freely accessible knowledge for all exists, or where it doesn’t? I trust you won’t have to consider that for long. It is thanks to Wikipedia that I was finally able to grasp the workings behind what is considered the most elegant equation in all of mathematics, Euler’s identity. It has beautifully simple structure: e^(pi*i) + 1 = 0. It’s significant because it ties together five fundamental constants, a deep connection between trigonometry and analysis, and uses multiplication, addition, and exponentation exactly once each. Even if that means nothing to you, the point is that about four hours spent studying on Wikipedia and the relevant cited articles got me to a point of basic understanding. And it cost me nothing besides what I paid for my computer, and an internet connection.
The reason for this little essay extolling the virtues of free and growing knowledge is that behind the scenes, nothing is free. The Wikimedia Foundation (Wikipedia’s parent organization) runs a tight and efficient ship, considering it is the 5th most popular destination on the web and yet runs on a fraction of the personnel and infrastructure that powers Google, Yahoo, or Facebook. It also runs entirely on donations. Like any non-profit the past few years, Wikipedia’s funds are getting low and planning the next year’s operations is always a challenge predicated on sufficient funding. They are also firmly against advertising. If you think a site that hosts uncensored, freely available knowledge for all would at least seem compromised if it had corporate advertisers, you’re right. They don’t like the smell of that either, and so Wikipedia is on a funding drive to keep operations going into 2012, ad-free.
I can’t say how much Wikipedia’s continued, independent existence should mean to you personally. But if you like the idea that drives it, here’s some food for thought…
- In the 1980s, encyclopedia sets ranged in price from $500 to $2000.
- When finally published in a software version, Encyclopedia Britannica started at $1200, finally dropping to $200.
- Microsoft Encarta was sold for around $100.
- Wikipedia is larger than any previous encyclopedia, and continually growing.
- A $5 donation to Wikipedia from everyone who has used it in the past month would keep it running through the end of 2012.
- You probably spend that much at Starbucks on a whim
- Donations to the Wikimedia Foundation are tax-deductible.
- You will be in the good company of many organizations that support public knowledge and education initiatives.
- Some of the recent intiatives being funded include software development to raise the quality of articles, improve the rating system, and enhance the review process.
At $5, I’d say that makes the price of knowledge very affordable indeed.
To contribute, and learn more about the Wikipedia organization itself, click here.
(Information about the costs of previous encyclopedias was sourced from The Kellogg School of Management here)