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Saturday, June 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Getting Started

Wikipedia can be useful tool

Special to The Seattle Times

When I first read about Wikipedia, "the free online encyclopedia that anyone can add to or edit," I doubted its contents would be very accurate or complete.

Still, it has become a widely popular resource since it started in 2001, and now my kids and even some college professors occasionally use it.

So, I'm curious, and go to www.wikipedia.org to find out what it really does have to offer. Right away, I notice there are multiple language editions, and the English one has more than a million articles.

These include international news stories as well as articles on a wide range of categories from art, history and mathematics, to philosophy, science, technology and more. Clicking Categories (on the upper right of the home page) takes me to more detailed indexes of these major topics.

This online encyclopedia is intriguing because it's free and written by volunteers — in fact, anyone with access to the Web can contribute. Most articles include an Edit this Page button enabling readers to add or edit the text. (Wikipedia stores the revisions, which gradually develop by general consensus.)

New articles may be submitted by any registered Wikipedia user and are first posted for preliminary review before publishing in the encyclopedia where anyone can edit them.

Contributors are instructed to maintain a neutral point of view and to avoid controversial topics. They're told not to submit articles that are thinly disguised advertisements or personal essays.

And they're advised not to copy others' published work, unless it's essential, and then document the source.

Interestingly, a study by the British journal Nature involved experts in reviewing science articles from Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. The reviewers found few serious errors, and quite a few minor errors in both (though Wikipedia had a few more minor errors). Reviewers also noted that many Wikipedia entries were poorly structured and confusing.

To form my own opinion of Wikipedia, I read a variety of articles. First, I click to the technology category, which has a long list of topics, and pick "Internet." This page defines Internet and offers an alphabetical index of subcategories, including Internet culture, fraud, e-mail, early Web history, online banking, online gambling and many more.

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I click on Internet Culture>Spamming>E-mail spammers, and find a list of known spammers I can read about. The Brian Haberstroh entry, for instance, describes how he goes about distributing spam, so I learn a little bit about how some spammers operate. Ugh.

Next, I go to Wikipedia's arts category and click: Literature>Writers>Writers by nationality>American novelists> and then select K, where I locate one of my favorite writers, Barbara Kingsolver. (Alternatively, I could have simply entered her name in the search box on the left.)

The article on her includes a short biography, literary themes she writes about, a list of her published books, references and external links. I don't find any notable mistakes, and the rather brief coverage is interesting. Next, I click on the external link that takes me to Kingsolver's official Web site, which is also interesting and more comprehensive.

Upstairs, my daughter is using Wikipedia to find information on Shakespeare for a seventh-grade research project. She locates several useful articles on his life and work.

Like most encyclopedias, this one generally includes more information on popular topics. Indeed, her next research project focuses on Leonardo da Vinci, and there's a ton of information on him, too.

Meanwhile, the official-site editors rely on you and me (plus a group of selected volunteers) to review and correct errors in the articles, while they focus on enforcing the nonbias policy.

Usually, they manage to help contributors reach a consensus on controversial topics, though when that fails, they occasionally block offenders from making future changes.

Unfortunately, some people take advantage of Wikipedia's open structure to post advertisements for a company or product. They may add links to the company Web site, replace articles with advertising, or post articles about the company.

The first two examples are treated as vandalism and removed. The third type is edited to present a neutral point of view, which usually discourages further attempts to advertise on Wikipedia.

Regarding controversial topics, the site tries to guide contributors to focus on improving articles rather than debating opinions. Emphasis is on creating accurate and well-written articles through collaboration rather than competition.

Wikipedia does have a number of enthusiastic contributors who may not get all the facts right, or simply don't write very well. The site's official editors reportedly believe that a poorly written article is usually better than no article, probably because major misinformation is usually corrected in the preliminary review.

However, with so many new submissions every day (about 1,700 submissions and 65,000 edits, according to the Wikipedia Foundation), it's likely the process of contributing may have to become more selective.

I first heard about Wikipedia while reading Thomas Friedman's book, "The World is Flat." In the book, he describes the encyclopedia project as a positive contribution to the Web.

However, he also suggests that although the belief that everyone should have free access to all human knowledge is heartfelt, if everyone contributes his or her knowledge/expertise free, the resources for new innovation could diminish significantly.

Maybe, but I'm not yet worried that free contributions of one's expertise will diminish the available resources for new innovation.

Nature reportedly surveyed 1,000 of its own authors and found that few have contributed to Wikipedia, yet those who have say the experience is rewarding, if occasionally frustrating. I'd rather celebrate those experts who do contribute.

Visit www.wikipedia.org and let me know what you think.

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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