|This essay contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. Essays are not Wikipedia policies or guidelines. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.|
|This page in a nutshell: Wikipedia is a hobby site disguised as an "encyclopedia".|
A lot of confusion has been spread about Wikipedia, and it is generally by people who don't edit Wikipedia, although Wikipedians on a mission exacerbate the foolishness (some examples to follow at the end).
The confusion is all contingent upon not having realized the essential truth of Wikipedia:
Wikipedia is a hobby site.
Wikipedia editing is a hobby. Sure, some people actually have jobs editing Wikipedia (more on that later), but most don't. Thus editing is something done in somebody's free time. That's a hobby.
Even if a hobby site may be quite extensive and well-known to other hobbyists, you don't typically find newspapers, magazines, scholars, etc., writing articles criticizing it. But strangely they don't seem to mind going into line by line detail over what is wrong with Wikipedia's coverage of <pick topic>. Why do you suppose that is?
One answer (which is kind of circular) is to note that these people need something to write about. So they do, regardless of whether the topic is interesting or regardless of whether they can shed any new insights (I even saw an article very recently by some "distinguished professor" type asking, is Wikipedia reliable? Good job, you're more than a couple years late to that discussion, bud!). Of course, this isn't a good answer, because the reason they think they can write about Wikipedia is because they want to feed their audience's thirst for such discussions. So the real question is, why are people in general (supposedly) interested in discussing Wikipedia?
Discussions about Wikipedia generally center around these issues:
1) Reliability. This can be phrased in some sophisticated manner like, "Can ordinary people working together, making small changes, produce something that asymptotically approaches a work that is greater than that produced by just a few?" Make analogies to open source if you want. This is obcuring the obvious.
Of course, generally speaking, a bunch of people looking at an article will lead to gradual improvements. But unless you have someone that knows what he or she is doing, the result will not be great. And remember, since people edit as a hobby, the people that know what they're doing are either not putting in enough effort or even bothering looking at the article. Sometimes it goes the other way. An expert can create an article, and then the article turns into garbage from repeated editing by non-experts. Asking whether Wikipedia is reliable is like asking, "Is assembling a bunch of random people together in a room and asking them about some new cancer drug a reliable thing to do?" It depends on what you really mean by "random" of course, and the result will be good or stupid depending on how you assembled the people. One can see this in action by looking at the different areas and "Wikiprojects" set up to govern them.
2) Usefulness and misuses. If Wikipedia were utterly useless, there would be no discussion about it at all. Thus what people are usually complaining about is that Wikipedia is either useless to experts or spreading misinformation. This kind of discussion usually goes nowhere. I think this quote by Freeman Dyson sums up the situation: "Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everyone uses it."
There is something to be said about the idea that people who really need some valuable info have other means of finding it and probably should. I don't expect surgeons to look up medical procedures on Wikipedia before going into the operating room. I'm sure real experts don't need Wikipedia. That's not to say they may not find it handy. In any case, most people read Wikipedia as a hobby. They are not looking through it for mission critical information.
As for people misusing Wikipedia, there are undoubtedly (and some demonstrated by this point) people who are either self-promoting or being paid to promote some person or organization or paint them in the best light. Perhaps bizarrely, I think this is a non-issue, despite what non-Wikipedians have claimed. In my experience (and I think Wikiscanner actually backs me up), there are enough fanatical Wikipedians that aren't being paid to edit, who will go hard to work at pushing their point of view. This has the effect of nullifying any paid promotion or making such paid contributions negligible in the scheme of things. It's a sad commentary on Wikipedia: it is ruled by people who have way too much time on their hands. And it has the advantages and disadvantages thereof.
3) Role as an encyclopedia. This is really related to 1) to some degree, but it is really its own issue. The problem is inherent in the way people talk about Wikipedia. Wikipedia is advertised as the "encyclopedia anyone can edit". That already is nonsensical. Have you ever heard of the "dictionary that lets anyone add a made up word to it"? I guess that exists now (it's called Wiktionary; there's also Urban dictionary). If the slogan had been "the hobby encyclopedia anyone can edit in their free time", I doubt there would be any controversy. It is precisely the juxtaposition of the pretension of an encyclopedia in the style of Britannica and the fact that anyone can add and modify its content that leads to the arguments. But my point here is that this seemingly contradictory juxtaposition is just that, seemingly contradictory. It is a contradiction that is basically held up by pretension. Once you realize this is not Britannica, there is no contradiction. This is just some kind of scaled down hobby encyclopedia with lots of articles on what people find interesting and they find Pokemon interesting and other things like medical science that happen to be important.
The confusion (pretension) over Wikipedia as an encyclopedia is probably the variety of confusion most pervasive amongst Wikipedians. Even some longtime Wikipedians still hold dear to it. You can recognize this attitude by the way some Wikipedians fiercely defend (in an "in your face" style) this holy site against "vandals". The term "vandal" is pretty revealing. In the same way that copyright "pirates" hardly bear any resemblance to the real pirates who would rape and pillage, a Wikipedian "vandal" is simply a person who has clicked a button on a webpage and typed in some gibberish (or perhaps coherent strings involving genitalia and someone's parentage).
A little history: a long time ago, the founder of Wikipedia, Jimbo Wales, said, "Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing." Sounds great and noble doesn't it? And it was. For a while. The earliest contributors to Wikipedia freely added their knowledge to Wikipedia, biasing it in some directions. Since they were mostly geeks, you got a lot of geeky topics, not so much about popular culture. It doesn't seem to me they took the "encyclopedia" slogan too seriously, although they obviously took their mission seriously enough.
Eventually people started being concerned with whether a topic was "encyclopedic" or "notable". This became, and remains, a hot button issue, because some people don't like other people writing articles about their best friend. But at the same time it was pretty obvious that Wikipedia contained a lot of content that many people would not consider "notable" (and these people would include encyclopedists). Thus a compromise was struck whereby you could write about your best friend, if that person had been mentioned a handful of times in the local paper and maybe once in the New York Times.
Does this sound like an encyclopedia to you? Or a hobby website that has some peculiar standards for inclusion? Once you realize this whole pretext of being an encyclopedia is farcical, there's no paradox, no great conundrum. Wikipedia is a site that people edit for fun. Most edits are made by people with too much time on their hands. Some of them are very knowledgable, and some are very opinionated and argumentative. You may find it useful on occasion, and other times it will shock you with its utter misinformation.
Welcome to Wikipedia!
[As with any Wikipedia page, this is a work in progress. Feel free to leave comments on the talk page]