Is Wikipedia the Webster for the 21st Century?

WikipediaI grew up with the Webster dictionary as my guide to defining words. I remember homework assignments that started with “Webster defines…” followed by the definition of some term and a follow up question on which I would need to write a paper. Another classic use of Webster was at church. Someone preaching on love? The easiest way to begin is by stating “Webster defines love as…” and then moving on to a more eloquent expansion on the basic definition.

During this past month, both of these examples came back to me, except this time Webster was replaced by Wikipedia.

Sure, this is anecdotal and not necessarily indicative of anything on a larger scale, but I was surprised nonetheless. The school example came during a test for my Strategic Management class (I’m currently working on my MBA at Purdue University). I was to write an essay on various strategies related to pay-per-view vs. video on demand. The question started with “Wikipedia defines…” and referred to the two pages found on Wikipedia as the basis for the essay.

The second example was at church, where the message was focused on “compassion,” which started with “Wikipedia defines…” before elaborating. Both examples were within one week of each other and gave me pause to think where Webster has gone.

This isn’t to say that Wikipedia is without flaws. On the contrary, the anonymity of Wikipedia’s contributors is often cited as the reason for certain falsehoods and opinions found embedded in the site. The Economist last month had an excellent article on the subject, cautioning readers especially when using Wikipedia for controversial topics:

“Those on contentious issues are useful in a different way. The information may be only roughly balanced. But the furiously contested entries on, say, “Armenian genocide” or “Scientology”, and their attached discussion pages, do give the reader a useful idea about the contours of the arguments, and the conflicting sources and approaches. In short: it would be unwise to rely on Wikipedia as the final word, but it can be an excellent jumping off point.”

A “jumping off point” it has become, at least in my life. Anyone else have similar experiences?

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