Wikipedia's readers view several billion pages each month and instantly update news and information worldwide. For example, unlike its disk-bound competitors, Wikipedia had an article on Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers the day of her nomination. Wikipedia also has plenty of historical entries, but its more obscure information sets it apart. After all, you won't find pictures of Carhenge (a Stonehenge-like structure made out of sedans) or a biography of Captain Kirk (Starfleet serial number SC 937-0176 CEC), in Britannica or Encarta. Wikipedia articles are generally thorough and accurate, and it's a useful and quick tool. Plus, you can chime in with your own details on any subject; contributing and editing aren't limited to credentialed writers. Wikipedia's collaborative nature serves literate DIYers well.
Yet the do-it-yourself nature of Wikipedia creates unique problems, such as vandalism--particularly with controversial topics. This summer, Wikipedia was flooded with phony edits after cable TV comedian Steven Colbert encouraged his viewers to do so. And readers have inserted churlish edits into an article on President George W. Bush. The community of some 500,000 registered "Wikipedians" is supposed to fix such aberrations as soon as possible and occasionally locks articles from editing to preserve their integrity. Top-notch contributors can become gatekeeping Administrators, who aim to keep content balanced and block disruptive users; however, it's unclear whether they can keep up with the ever-expanding volume of articles. Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, encourages contributors to cite sources for their data--a process that works surprisingly well. The most heavily edited articles are generally the most accurate.
Because Wikipedia is an ongoing project, it has occasional gaps in coverage. For instance, some words in the Wiktionary have their etymology listed, while others do not. We wonder how many scholars, who already have their hands full contributing to established publications for pay, actually take the time to add their authority to Wikipedia entries. And there are no student-friendly brainstorming tools, such as Encyclopedia Britannica's BrainStormer and Encarta's Visual Browser.
Wikipedia's thorough online help section, accessible through a link on each page, covers the details of navigating, using, and contributing to the encyclopedia. You can also file complaints and report vandalism and copyright infractions online. Wikipedia's support pages have developed organically, reflecting the demands of fellow readers and editors, and are perhaps more useful than the online help pages of software such as Encyclopedia Britannica. Help and Reference desks are available online, and you can research technical and procedural questions at the Village Pump link. One downside is the lack of a phone number to call with tech questions. And while Wikipedia's FAQs and tutorials are useful, prepare to wait any length of time for a posted or e-mailed reply from fellow Wikipedians if you've posted questions to the help desk.
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