My friend Randy, who is an academic librarian, recently posted an entry with a section on criticism of Wikipedia. His entry is called Various. He cites an essay called the Amorality of Web 2.0 by Nicholas Carr. I have to agree that the linguistic and cultural implications of Wikipedia are being oversold by the usual assortment of technical writers, visionaries, dreamers and loons. I also agree that the quality of the entries is inconsistent but I think it is not as bad as some of these comments suggest.
Wikipedia is not supposed to be as good as a printed encyclopedia, not nearly as good as the old Britannica, which had serious articles by leading experts. It is good in some areas, as good as many printed works and better than many other online sources. However many entries are badly written or badly researched. There are fan pieces. There is advocacy and proselytising. There is an inherent resistance to seeing work that a bad writer is proud of, or that someone with a strong viewpoint insists on publishing, revised or replaced. Sometimes Wikipedia lets two pieces stand, with a special two-way flag on the page. For instance the current article on neuro-linguistic programming – which I agree with – cross references to an old page written by devotees of this pseudo-scientific cult.
The main problem is that anyone starting without some preliminary sense of a topic or basic critical and analytical skills will not be able to decide if something is trustworthy. Some bad stuff gets in because no one is checking, and it may take a long time before anyone else tries to rewrite it.
Wikipedia is useful when I want to footnote something I have written in my blog. I don’t have to write out the footnote – I just link to a Wikipedia entry. The entries I use are good enough to explain who or what I have mentioned, and to empower a reader to look further. They are stable enough – in terms of persistence and content for my purposes. Many entries get better as new information is added or the entry is properly edited and organized. The democratic editing process seems to work, although some writers try to manipulate it to protect their work.