Weekly Blog #7: Printed Encyclopedia vs. Wikipedia

I have to be honest. I think the last time I used an actual, printed encyclopedia was in middle school. It might have actually been in elementary school. When I wrote research papers in college, I certainly used research books for reference, but definitely not an encyclopedia. These days, when I need to look up something I don’t know, I immediately turn to Wikipedia. But when I think about it a little more in depth, can Wikipedia actually REALLY serve as a trusted source of information?

For example, just today in the office, I was editing a press release for my colleague. In the release there was a word to which he had hyperlinked to its definition on Wikipedia. My counsel was that that we needed to be careful about linking to anything on Wikipedia because we couldn’t be sure whether everything on the Wikipedia page was true. So we removed the hyperlink to Wikipedia.

Something to think about: interesting how this is how I think at work, but when it comes to my own personal use, I seem to be able to rely on Wikipedia’s “truthiness” (according to Stephen Colbert) just fine. Maybe that’s because there is not much on the line when it comes to what I am researching for my personal life, but at work my clients are counting on my credibility and that is important to me and to the well-being of my career. Although it is true that when I am using Wikipedia for a personal search, I am still aware that there is a chance the information I am reading might not be factual — it it just not as important.

I think this is related to what Garrett and Mike have discussed in class (and in past class blog posts) about how people have come to trust the Internet too much. While I definitely do not have the mindset that everything I read online must be true, I am certainly guilty of immediately turning to the web to find out what I need at the drop of a hat and  trusting certain sources. Furthermore, the fact that I don’t think to crack open a real /printed encyclopedia or a related book is a prime example of how the web and social media has changed our culture and society.

Jimmy Wales greatly contributed to this cultural change when he created Wikipedia in 2001. But before I get into that, let’s discuss briefly how ironically enough, when you look at the Wikipedia page about Jimmy Wales, one of the first things you see is that he was born on perhaps August 7 OR August 8! I not only find this to be hilarious, but also the perfect example of why we need to be more careful when considering online info sources as reliable and true.

Anyway, one of the biggest changes that society has seen with the rise of social media and online tools is that things are EASIER. Let’s face it — these days if you have access to the internet you could pretty much live your entire life without ever having to leave your house. I think this is one of the main reasons people automatically choose Wikipedia over a more traditional research tool such as a classic encyclopedia — whether they know that Wikipedia has the possibility of being inaccurate in some places or not, it is much easier to access than a printed book. I think this is perhaps the acceptable bargain (a la Clay Shirky) that these people make. Needless to say, the Internet had made us more lazy than ever.

Ultimately, though, when deciding whether the printed encyclopedia or Wikipedia is more accurate, I think it is more likely to be the printed version. But if you’re not going to use the printed encyclopedia, I think you really have to be careful about using a tool like Wikipedia as your only source… especially when using it for something important.

Until next week —


About Jessie Gillman

This blog was created for my social media class as part of my graduate program in PR and communications at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In addition to being a grad student, I am a PR/comm professional at Environics Communications where I focus on clean energy/environmental issues, education and women's health. I am also a huge book lover, an avid traveler, a big Philly sports fanatic, and I love Yoga.
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