Wikipedia Is No Authority–By Design

MUD day 13:

In an interview in Foreign Policy, published on its website earlier this month, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was asked if he’s shocked to hear that people, including journalists, “use Wikipedia all the time.” His response is worth repeating to any journalist that either uses Wikipedia unthinkingly or unthinkingly refuses to use Wikipedia:

Journalists all use Wikipedia. The bad journalist gets in trouble because they use it incorrectly; the good journalist knows it’s a place to get oriented and to find out what questions to ask.

Wales goes on to say the Wikipedia is actually quite old-fashioned in its approach, looking for “reliable sources” rather than “something in a blog somewhere.”

What I find most interesting about Wikipedia, though, is the way it undercuts the old-fashioned notion of authority. Once you start thinking in any depth about why you should or shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source, you start to realize how vulnerable to criticism the authority of any source is.

This, I take it, is the position of one of Wikipedia’s biggest fans in journalism, Dan Gillmor. In his book, Mediactive, he argues that the audience for news and other media must change from passive to active consumers, that they have a responsibility to be skeptical and exercise judgment.

Wikipedia, I think, operates on this principle. In telling its users, “don’t trust us; decide for yourself,” it is passing responsibility for judgment back to the individual reader. By handing any user who wants it the key to authorship, Wikipedia is enacting a radical idea: that authority is a shared responsibility.

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