It was the third day of school last year and I was sitting in my biology class, waiting for the bell to ring so I could go home. Just then, Eric, a smart guy next to me, asked the teacher a question. I didn’t even catch what he said. What got my attention was that the teacher said, “Well, let’s look it up.” Then he went straight to wikipedia.org.
This surprised me. My teachers rarely used the Internet to look up information in the middle of their classes, and he went to Wikipedia! I thought that most teachers didn’t like Wikipedia because anything on the online encyclopedia can be changed by anyone.
The teacher looked up whatever Eric had asked about and a few seconds later a comprehensive summary and a picture were projected on the screen in front of us. Throughout the year our biology teacher would use Wikipedia a few times a week to help explain things or to look for pictures of plants, animals or bacteria.
You may be thinking, “What a weird teacher. Wikipedia is not a reliable source. No students, let alone teachers, should be using it.” I don’t blame you. If anyone can change a Wikipedia entry, you don’t always know that the person making the change knows what he or she is talking about. So the information you find might be incorrect.
From experience though, I think using Wikipedia is OK. A few years ago, my friends and I looked up the Wikipedia pages for our school and our rival school. We messed around on those pages, changing descriptions and sports statistics to make our school look better and the rival school worse. We also decided to go on some pages for historical figures and change really significant facts, to see if anyone would catch and correct them.
Five minutes after we started messing around on our school pages, we checked them to see if our changes got saved. We hit refresh and all the changes were gone. Surprised, my friend also checked the historical pages we altered and all of our changes were gone. After seeing my writing erased in minutes, if not seconds, and learning about a community of volunteers who correct mistakes, I dare not mess with Wikipedia again.
The trained volunteers make me trust it more
In early July I learned that there is a dedicated community of people that works on fixing mistakes and editing pages. I had to read an article for my SAT class titled “Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert” by Maria Bustillos. The article said that there’s a network of thousands of trained volunteers who try to prevent errors and solve disputes. I thought this was cool. If people are putting in that much time it must mean they care about correct information, so I feel like I can trust the information on Wikipedia more.
So while your favorite celebrity’s page might contain errors (since they’re still alive, information about them like what movies they’ve been in is frequently changing), pages about significant historical figures, like Napoleon, will usually be correct.
For my European history class last year, I had to write an essay about the role of women in the Renaissance, a cultural movement that began in Italy in the 14th century and spread to the rest of Europe. When I got home that evening, I started by reading the tiny section about women in my textbook. I was annoyed. I had to write a three-page paper and the textbook did not have enough information. I was going to need additional sources.
So I went to Wikipedia (it’s bookmarked because I use it so much) and I typed in “women” and “Renaissance.” I got a page on the Renaissance and another page on American historian Joan Kelly, who questioned whether women had a role in the Renaissance. I was surprised that Wikipedia even gave results, because my textbook had said women were not an important part of that time period. According to Wikipedia, a few women were able to participate by paying artists to paint, but they couldn’t succeed as artists or writers. I noticed that there were three footnotes in the first paragraph, which led me to websites like BBC History and published books.
I don’t completely rely on Wikipedia. In fact, no one should depend on a single source no matter how reliable it seems, because that is the easiest way to write a one-sided, biased paper. In eighth grade I wrote a paper about the Korean War and after I read about it on Wikipedia, I realized that I had been biased toward the Korean point of view.
All of the Wikipedia pages I’ve seen are written in language that’s easy to understand. Almost all historical figures and events, works of art, and key themes are linked so that if you click on a term in an entry, it leads to another page that gives more information. I had to do a Spanish presentation about the culture in the Castilla–La Mancha region of Spain. I looked up “Castilla–La Mancha” on Wikipedia in Spanish. There was a link to a lengthy page for the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha and the author Miguel de Cervantes. The page on Don Quixote explained bits of information I didn’t even expect, such as the book’s influence on politics in Spain.
But as helpful as Wikipedia has been with explaining the role of women in the Renaissance and Spanish history, I would still rather spend my time looking up my favorite singers and TV shows.