I’m not a kool-aid drinker of the concept of Open Source. I don’t think something is inherently superior if it’s open source. Cheaper, for sure, but not necessarily better. I use Firefox, OpenOffice, and GIMP, but not Linux (yet). I appreciate the fact that open source gives me options, but I’ll only use it if it makes my life easier or more better.

Wikipedia is the information equivalent of open source software. It’s the encylopedia that anyone can edit (within certain parameters) rather than experts being assigned in their field (or however it is that regular encyclopedias do it). A 2005 report discovered that Wikipedia is not markedly less accurate than the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Even so, when I first discovered Wikipedia I was pretty unimpressed. Basic things like grammar and structure were amateurish at best and the content was frequently biased. You couldn’t use it in a debate because for all you know the person that wrote it was smoking pot rather than doing his homework.

But then I discovered that it wasn’t that Wikipedia was useless, it was that I found the right use for it.

Wkipedia’s critics miss out on its true value: It offers information, or at least a starting point, to areas of interest where no encyclopedia would even think to go. Whether you’re interested in the comic book character Blue Beetle, the anime Ranma 1/2, the Ferengi race from Star Trek, or the political structure in the imaginary world of The West Wing, Wikipedia will give you information that no one else will.

Not all of it will be correct, but the more obscure the interest the more likely it was written by an anal retentive fanatic and the more likely it actually is correct. People think they know a lot more about America’s Founding >Fathers than they actually do. I doubt anyone thinks they know more about the Ambush Bug than they actually do.

It’s helped me a number of ways. When I’ve needed to keep track of characters in the West Wing, for instance, it helped straighten me out. When I wanted to know who Adam Cray in DC Comics was, it gave me the scoop. When I needed to figure out the order of the various Patlabor serials, it gave me the information that I could not find anywhere else after literally spending hours trying to find it.

So yeah, don’t use it if you have something else handy. But next time you wonder where information on a subject might possibly exist, it’s invaluable.

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7 Responses to The Open Source Encyclopedia

  1. Webmaster says:


    Wikipedia’s got its own problems. Serious problems.

    I try to avoid using it whenever possible, because the chance of something being accurate is a lot less than that “Wikipedia vs Britannica” study leads you to believe.

  2. trumwill says:

    If you’ve got another authority you can use, then definitely use it. But my point is that it provides a clearing house for obscure information* about things that no one else does and that is it’s true value. A lot of people completely miss that. There’s a lot of ugliness in the sausage being made, but most of the entires I’ve seen are mostly accurate. Avoid political footballs (be it politics, sports, or anything where personal pride may be involved) and it’s quite useful.

    * – Ironically in my experience the more obscure something is, the more likely it was written by some oddball fanatic on the subject, and the more likely it is to be accurate. I’ve found errors and/or misrepresentations of their entry for Batman, for instance, but not The Question. West Wing, but not Sports Night.

    [this comment was modified by its author]

  3. Peter says:

    Wikipedia’s also useful for getting a quick overview of non-obscure but unfamiliar topics. For instance, if for some reason I had to know something about the Thirty Years’ War – I’ve heard of it but don’t know any details – rather than engaging in lengthy research I could just read Wikipedia’s article. That wouldn’t be enough for serious academic work but will suffice for most purposes.

  4. Webmaster says:

    Oh, I see where it can be useful.

    I just do my level best to avoid organizations with that level of corruption, and wikipedia’s got cronyism and corruption down to where they could probably teach the Mafia a thing or two.

  5. trumwill says:

    As they say, the arguments are most vicious when the stakes are small. Why so many people spend so much time and energy on it is a mystery to me, but I guess I get to reap the benefits.

    I care a lot more about how the sausage tastes than how it is made (unless of course someone is trying to recruit me as a sausage-maker).

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