Wikipedia is a wonderful resource, but ...

What's not to like about Wikipedia? Almost 1 million articles strong in the English version, this immensely popular site has become a go-to resource for 'Net users doing research for school, work or fun. What's not to like, though, is that Wikipedia - the self-proclaimed "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" - cannot be trusted to have its facts straight.

What's not to like about Wikipedia? Almost 1 million articles strong in the English version, this immensely popular site has become a go-to resource for 'Net users doing research for school, work or fun.

What's not to like, though, is that Wikipedia - the self-proclaimed "free encyclopedia that anyone can edit" - cannot be trusted to have its facts straight. Wikipedia can't be trusted expressly because anyone can edit it - worse yet, anyone can edit it under the cloak of anonymity. And anyone too often includes vandals and pranksters.

It's a combination that makes trust all but impossible, no matter how otherwise valuable the site may be on any other score - and I say that as an admirer. The wonders and flaws of Wikipedia were detailed last week in a two-part series in The Boston Globe.

The most notorious example of Wiki-mischief recounted involved a retired Tennessee newspaper publisher whose Wikipedia profile was altered to falsely implicate him in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The Wiki-powers that be did what they could to undo that libel and have promised to do a better job of policing the site, but that's small comfort to the man whose reputation was besmirched.

Perhaps more troubling from the standpoint of trustworthiness is the less conspicuous shenanigans and mistakes that plague the site. For example, dozens of members of Congress have had their Wikipedia profiles scrubbed clean of embarrassing facts by eager-beaver staffers.

You just never know what you're going to get there. Let's say you're looking for biographical information about Bill Gates and Wikipedia tells you that "during his brief stint at Harvard, Gates pledged to the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity."

Would you think, "I didn't know Gates was FIJI?" or "Hey, look, Wikipedia has Gates in there with Bluto, Otter and the rest of the Animal House gang."

All you need to see what's wrong with a Wikipedia entry is a firm grasp of the facts yourself. My search the other day took me to a Wikipedia article on a subject about which I am quite familiar: The MetroWest Daily News is a small newspaper in Framingham, Mass. According to the brief Wikipedia article about it: "The current name is the third in the newspaper's history. Initially, it was known as The South Middlesex Daily News, but later was changed to The Middlesex Daily News."

Actually, its current name is the sixth in the paper's post-1900 history, most of which was spent doing business as The Framingham News. Any longtime Framingham resident older than 50 could have told you so. (Yes, I fixed the article.)

Wikipedians and their fans will argue that whatever ails their baby is little different, if at all, from the well-publicized ills of the mainstream media: botched reporting, biased writing and outright falsifications. They'll argue that the benefits of wiki collaboration far outweigh any flaws.

None of that gets them around the issue of trust.

Meanwhile, back at Buzzblog

Many, many thanks to all of you who have taken the time to check out my new blog called Buzzblog. Your supportive e-mails and blog posts have been energizing as I slog my way through the learning curve that comes with this endeavor.

In conjunction with the blog, I am assembling an e-mail distribution list of readers who are willing to be pinged from time to time - not often - when I perceive the need to draw on expert opinion or poll the group. We'll come up with some kind of cute name - Buzzblog Buddies, the Buzzblog Brigade, or maybe something that doesn't suck. If you're interested in being part of the list, please drop me a line.

The address is buzz@nww.com.

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