August 11, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Perspective: Teen's warning on the gospel of WikipediaSee all Perspectives
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As the deadline loomed, I knew there was no way I would be able to sort through thousands of Google search results or go to the library to research while simultaneously performing other vital homework completion functions like talking online, reading celebrity gossip and downloading music. So I did what any desperate, procrastinating student would do--I logged on to Wikipedia, pulled up the entries on Renaissance literature and filled in the gaps in my paper until I had a presentable product.
The name Wikipedia comes from the Latin root "pedia," meaning "book of arcane facts" and the ancient German root "wiki," meaning "potentially altered by any idiot with Internet access." Actually, Wikipedia combines the words "encyclopedia" and "wiki," a type of software that facilitates online editing.
Wikipedia recently made headlines when it banned Stephen Colbert from editing or adding articles on its pages after the comedian made humorous, false additions to the site and encouraged fans to do the same.
But Colbert's antics may have done the world--and by the world, I mostly mean me and my peers--a favor. Until recently, many kids in my high school, myself included, used Wikipedia without questioning the integrity of its content. Before Colbert highlighted the unreliability of the site's information, I doubt many people even realized it isn't an authoritative, credible source.
Yes, teachers and parents constantly remind students to think twice before relying on certain online sources, but it's easy for a student in a rush to forget that Wikipedia belongs in the category of unverified information rather than credible information--especially because its format is one of a traditional encyclopedia.
Which isn't to say Wikipedia's a bad thing.
One of the site's major selling points is its ability to reach both niche and general audiences in one place. Plus, the opportunity to contribute offers people--especially teens whose voices aren't always heard by more traditional or mainstream publications--a way to propagate their views and gain access to information written by their peers.
But the site comes with pitfalls.
Edits, for example, have no formal filters. And while visitors are held to a strict honor code, there are clearly Wiki users with very little honor, as has been demonstrated on Comedy Central. It's easy to upload blatantly false information, a lesson I learned the hard way when I turned in an English project that defined "beatniks" as the '50s answer to gangsta rap. Well, not really, but this is an example of what can happen when people without brains use information written by people without consciences.
Of course, for students, Wikipedia is the miracle cure for procrastination (and there's science to back that up; a recent poll showed that nine out of 10 doctors suggested Wikipedia as a cure to putting homework off. The other 10 percent were too busy uploading spurious entries to participate in the poll).
Unlike search engines, Wikipedia searches do not bombard you with thousands of sites that have little or no relation to the subject you are researching. Unlike traditional textbooks, Wikipedia articles do not require a trip to the library, but are available from the comfort of your home or dorm. Wikipedia is completely open about the fact that its information is not quality-controlled, but even if information is easy to access and modify, it isn't worth anything if there is no way of separating fact from fiction.
So please take my advice, students: Wikipedia is a great place to find out about local bands or start doing research. However, before including Wikipedia information in a term paper or using Wikipedia entries to study for exams, make sure you support your findings with more legitimate sources. Until next time, I will be editing Wikipedia pages.
Soumya Srinagesh is a CNET intern who will be attending Wellesley College this fall. In her spare time, she tries to pull herself away from her computer to save the world.
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