I think Wikipedia got big the same year I entered college. All of a sudden it was the first hit on Google whenever you asked a question, and the first source you went to to settle a dispute with your roommate.
But people…or at least professors…didn’t think of it as a legitimate source. Even though Wikipedia does have citations, it was an obvious no-no to use Wikipedia as a source because of its open contribution policy.
Slowly, it seems, this perception has begin to change.
Although I don’t think anyone would cite only Wikipedia in any serious context, professors have started recommending checking out the site for basic background research. If you want to orient yourself before getting involved in your novel or your textbook or your play or whatever it may be, professors now seem to think it may not be a bad idea to check out Wikipedia. This reaction is now far more common than the constant warnings against the site that I used to get as a freshman. In recent years, I have gotten links from the site directly from professors and have even been asked to check Wikipedia in class to confirm a teacher’s hazy memory. “Actually, Wikipedia is not too bad” has been said almost word for word by at least two of my professors in the last couple of years.
How did Wikipedia start bettering its reputation so quickly? Has it just grown on us? Are the citations on Wikipedia itself getting better? Are we getting lazy? What’s going on here?
Wikipedia is about to be 10 years old. That means it was actually around for 4 years before I got to college, although I didn’t know about it and it wasn’t nearly as universal back then. And now that it’s hitting this milestone, it is making a conscious effort to improve its reputation even further according to a recent article in the Chronicle.Wikipedia isn’t just hoping people will accept the site anymore. They are now consciously “making efforts to involve academics more closely in its process. The latest is a new plan to build an ‘open educational resource platform’ that will gather tools about teaching with Wikipedia in the classroom.” So those professors who asked me to look up stuff on Wikipedia aren’t so crazy after all. They’re just anticipating the inevitable future.
But this doesn’t mean that you can do all your paper research on Wikipedia now, or that you can avoid going to the library because teachers approve of the site (although I have heard of people who go through 4 years of college without ever setting foot inside a library…). ‘“We don’t want them to cite Wikipedia,’ [one Wikimedia member] said of students. ‘What we really want them to do is understand how to use and critically evaluate the articles on Wikipedia and then learn how to contribute to make those articles better.”’
Wikipedia doesn’t just want to give people easy access to facts anymore. They now want to help students and future scholars learn how to evaluate those supposed “facts” and, in return, help make Wikipedia even more reliable. Sounds like a pretty good deal all around, huh?
Maybe Wikipedia is new evil genius of the tech world (other commonly accused parties: Apple & Google)? Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if my generation’s kids were using Wikipedia as a truly legitimate source in the future.