It’s kind of sad story, really. Here is this web phenomenon that has seemingly arisen out of nowhere. People are clicking to it by happenstance. Once they get there, they are often confused about what they are seeing. This confusion has led to a strong need to discredit, boycott, and even actively disrupt the world’s first free and open encyclopedia.
Some facts about the site. It is currently the 9th most visited site in the world (alexa.com) and has 8.2 million articles in over 200 languages, with the English version containing 2 million of those (Wikipedia/Our Project).
Just those facts alone mean that something successful and possibly meaningful is going on. So, why are so many people resistant and scared?
No simple answer to that. It could be due to the way the knowledge in Wikipedia is built. It builds knowledge in a way shocking to most Americans, and is sometimes considered a disruptive innovation. Or, it could be Americans striking resistance to computers and the internet, especially among some of the older generations. Maybe the pace of change in the world is so rapid that many Americans just feel confused and scared about computers/internet (computer security anyone?).
Another, and more simpler, explanation would be to blame the mainstream media. Most outlets do not provide an objective presentation of the site, almost always going for the controversial story. Putting aside my annoyance with that style of sensational journalism, those articles could be a way to educate as well as illuminate. They don’t, though. They contain too many errors to show an good understanding of the site. Often, scaring people more than telling an interesting story.
Finally, how often have I heard of teachers, professors, lawyers, coporate managers, copy editors, and parents tell others to avoid the site. These folks should be the vanguard of our knowledge. Many would, and do, look to them for guidance. These are the folks that provide the expertise to the common person through their published studies, articles, and media interviews. Most of them have it wrong too.
All of this adds to the confusion out there. On the marketing side, Wikipedia and its supporters are an all volunteer group. They have no PR reps or lobby groups. It is a non-profit organization that would rather focus on improving the product (free knowledge) than promoting themselves. This certainly can’t help its “reputation” but I would be hard pressed to find fault with that model.
Yes, this is. If we cannot depend on our experts, media outlets, or a marketing campaign, then who is left? One simple answer, is you. Time magazine appointed you “person of the year” so maybe this is all right. Do you think you have enough inside of you to answer those complex questions for yourself? If you do, then you may just be able to understand how Wikipedia really works.
In my eyes, that would be a great transition, empowering a whole new cadre of Americans who are independent thinkers and decision makers. Some of the ideals that the most illustrious Americans have said are our greatest attributes.
Still, I can’t help but be saddened by the whole situation. A group of volunteers, with no profit in mind, are trying to do some good for the world and our country. Yet at every turn our institutions are criticizing and ridiculing. Common folks are vandalizing it and telling their children to stay away. The general thought is not “thank you”, but instead “go away”.
This is why America fails Wikipedia.
Suggestion: the only way to understand Wikipedia is to use it and add to it. Look up something interesting and then find something you know a lot about and if you see an error, correct it. Avoid this negative cycle of distrust and sad behavior, help us to build knowledge for each other and our children.