I am an unabashed Wikipedia lover. Er, fan. I love it for practical and philosophical reasons.
First, practical: Wikipedia is a great place to start research. (Just don’t finish there.) It’s usually one of the first links offered by a Google search, and inside a Wikipedia entry you can find a lot of general info that is more or less accurate, divided into categories, along with outside links, and most importantly: references. I like to stop by and skim, to figure out if I’m really that interested in a particular topic, or for a refresher. Wikipedia can remind me of things I’ve read in other places, or it can suggest texts for me to check out. From there, my next step is usually the University library. Like I said, Wikipedia is a great place to begin – but I always try to keep in mind that Stephen Colbert, with the help of his viewers, once took over the entry on elephants and changed it to say that the population of African elephants had tripled in the past six months. Wikipedia’s server crashed and several entries had to be locked down.
And now, philosophical: Wikipedia represents a shared reality. And not just any shared reality, but one that is acknowledged and agreed to and sort of has rules. You can change the accepted reality, and you can gain privileges by being a regular “user” of this reality. It’s a majority-rules reality. Which is how culture works, how prejudice works, how sanity and insanity work.
Wikipedia represents Truth. The only kind of truth we know. It’s the story that changes as people change, as science changes, and as stories change. It’s the manifestation of human knowledge – it is the transition between “everyone knowing that the world is flat” to “everyone knowing that the world is round” simply because most people believe in a particular fact. If I go change the entry on Loki to say that he was never a real Norse God, but only an invention of Christian monks writing in the 11th century, no doubt someone would change it back. Then I change it again, and it’s reversed again, until maybe someone agrees with me or five people disagree, and eventually the person with the most established history as a Wikipedia user will prevail, or perhaps I will prove my case using references from a new article in the Journal of Old Norse Literature, and eventually my edit will prevail.
If only Galileo had had access to Wikipedia.
Of course, the downside of this is the tendancy of a whole bunch of people to agree on some really crazy, unverifiable things. (*cough*Creationism*cough*). But I would argue that those crazy, unverifiable things are a very important part of our cultural Truth – of our story. Truth isn’t fixed, and we’re all part of our own stories, our own personal, cultural, universal stories. We have different levels of establishment (based on cultural markers of “expertise”) and different levels of ability to change the story.
Wikipedia is a metaphor for knowledge, privilege, culture, truth, and this new, technological Story of Life. What’s not to love?