Today, Wikipedia is widely considered an invaluable resource. There are occasional errors and controversies, but for the most part it provides accurate, comprehensive information to billions of people every day.
Wikipedia was founded in 2001, and for the first few years was mostly treated as curiosity by those outside of the Wikipedia “movement.” But Wikipedia grew in popularity, and in 2005 became the most popular reference site on the internet. Popularity led to intense media scrutiny. Most commentators considered Wikipedia a doomed experiment run by utopian radicals. To give a sense of this for those who weren’t following the controversy at the time or don’t remember, here are some examples of popular critiques of Wikipedia from 2005.
“One day Wikipedia may well be the most amazing reference work the world has ever seen, lauded for its quality. But to get from here to there it will need real experts and top quality writing — it won’t get there by hoping that its whizzy technical processes remedy such deficiencies. In other words, it will resemble today’s traditional encyclopedias far more than it does today.” (source)
“The Seigenthaler affair points up a crucial condition of the Internet’s information ecology: It’s a system that doesn’t select for truth. Currency, controversy, charisma, fascination — these count much more in determining the vitality and survivability of online articles, facts, or ‘’memes.’’ In the 21st century’s networked knowledge environment, truth will be less and less identified by the imprimatur of expert writers and invisible, omnicompetent editors, but by readers who understand the principles of networked information.” (source)
“If you read anything about Web 2.0, you’ll inevitably find praise heaped upon Wikipedia as a glorious manifestation of “the age of participation.” Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia; anyone who wants to contribute can add an entry or edit an existing one. O’Reilly, in a new essay on Web 2.0, says that Wikipedia marks “a profound change in the dynamics of content creation” — a leap beyond the Web 1.0 model of Britannica Online. To Kevin Kelly, Wikipedia shows how the Web is allowing us to pool our individual brains into a great collective mind. It’s a harbinger of the Machine. In theory, Wikipedia is a beautiful thing — it has to be a beautiful thing if the Web is leading us to a higher consciousness. In reality, though, Wikipedia isn’t very good at all. Certainly, it’s useful — I regularly consult it to get a quick gloss on a subject. But at a factual level it’s unreliable, and the writing is often appalling. I wouldn’t depend on it as a source, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to a student writing a research paper.” (source)
“To many guardians of the knowledge cathedral — librarians, lexicographers, academics — that’s precisely the problem. Who died and made this guy professor? No pedigreed scholars scrutinize his work. No research assistants check his facts. Should we trust an encyclopedia that allows anyone with a pulse and a mousepad to opine about Jackson Pollock’s place in postmodernism? What’s more, the software that made Wikipedia so easy to build also makes it easy to manipulate and deface. A former editor at the venerable Encyclopedia Britannica recently likened the site to a public rest room: You never know who used it last.” (source)
Wikipedia is a classic example of how the next big thing often starts out looking like a toy.