I first read about the latest Wikipedia "controversies" on Monday, though it's apparently been going on for a while.
The flurry of media attention was drawn to Wikipedia because John Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today criticizing the site's open-access approach to information because he had been named in an entry related to the Kennedy assassination. His essay focuses on the impossibility of tracking down who wrote false statements about him, and criticizes Wikipedia writers as "volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects". While his personal sense of outrage is perhaps understandable, his essay clearly shows the gap between older conceptions of publishing and what the web really offers. Several things come to mind.
First, why didn't he just change the entry himself? or have one of his minions do it? (In the past few days, on the heels of this issue, Wikipedia has changed the rules so that only registered users will be able to contribute information, allowing all changes to be tracked to a particular user.)
Second, no one with any sense would take a Wikipedia article on a super-controversial (and potentially wacky) topic like the Kennedy assassination very seriously.
The man who wrote the false information about Seigenthaler has since apologized and been fired from his job. He apparently didn't think any one used Wikipedia as a serious information tool. That doesn't mean it's justifiable to write a slanderous statement as a prank. But the status of Wikipedia as an information source is somewhere between "totally non serious" and "acceptable to teams of establishment experts."
Entries on tamer stuff don't change that often and are generally pretty reliable (you want to learn who were the key names in the history of, say, watchmaking, you can quickly check Wikipedia and then go forward with your research). But certain topic stems are of course magnets for opinionated folks, and the site editors can't keep up with everything. But usually (and I don't know why this didn't happen in this case) some other opinionated writer will step in and change it again.
The head of Wikipedia has now come out suggesting that no one should cite the site, but that it should be used as a starting point for further research. He also points out that no one doing real research should be citing any sort of encyclopedia, because the kinds of information they provide are very limited and prone to error.
But that doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater is the right response either, and Seigenthaler's mutterings about how Congress "enabled" and "protects" Wikipedia writers suggest a deep distrust of new media that risks violating the free exchange of information and opinion.
I think Wikipedia is one of the great things on the web -- largely because it shows (like some other key online ventures like Ebay) that much of the time, most of the people are mostly good intentioned. The fact that volunteers with knowledge about particular topics choose to spend their time writing about them is pretty awesome. Wikipedia is also extremely flexible and dynamic, allowing it to register developments in popular culture and slang that never make it in to print or print-equivalent sources. There are topic stems that also wouldn't make it into the traditional information architecture. The web gives voice to information and opinions from a much broader range of persons than any traditional medium.
Of course the media loves controversy. So items that encourage paranoia and distrust of internet-based communication, commerce, or culture always get more play than items celebrating those things.
Seems like there's lots of teachable material in this event for instructors at all levels...