I’ve always been a fan of Wikipedia. The Internet has long been known as the largest source of information mankind has ever created, but Wikipedia has always appeared to be the closest thing to a personification of that abundance of information. Wikipedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia, giving virtually anyone that’s willing to participate the chance to share their knowledge on any one of several million different topics ranging from any number of subjects you can think of. Basically, if it can be described using a noun, it’s in Wikipedia.
This begs the question: Out of Wikipedia and the more traditional encyclopedia, which is better? While there are several different encyclopedias out there from which to choose, the argument can certainly be made that the content inside of them is more consistent and reliable than what you might find with Wikipedia.
Still, Wikipedia has proven reliable in many instances. Not only is it a larger database of information, containing data about millions of subjects in multiple languages, but Wikipedia is also more up to date. In many cases, Wikipedia is updated before many news stations catch wind of a breaking story, thanks in part to a dedicated group of volunteer content creators numbering in the thousands.
Wikipedia has a history of being run as a service by volunteers, rather than paid experts. While some of its operating costs are covered by advertising, it depends on donations by its users to stay active and strong. Jimmy Whales, the founder of Wikipedia, is a volunteer himself. He stated on Wikipedia’s donations page, “I don’t get paid a cent for my work at Wikipedia, and neither do our thousands of other volunteer authors and editors. When I founded Wikipedia, I could have made it into a for-profit company with advertising banners, but I decided to do something different.”
The traditional encyclopedia has existed for over two millennia. Originally containing one volume, some encyclopedias (including the well-known Encyclopedia Britannica) have evolved into massive collections of articles spanning over a dozen volumes. The majority of this knowledge has been harvested by highly educated experts in various fields. Unlike Wikipedia, a traditional encyclopedia has a relatively small number of sources from which it draws. These sources are usually considered reputable and recognizable, while Wikipedia takes more of a thesis format in how it cites outside sources with varying degrees of expertise and/or interests. For example, a single sentence on Wikipedia could include information from multiple sources ranging from actual recognized content experts to news sites and other Internet-accessible content.
Unfortunately, not everything in Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia for that matter) is very reliable. For example, a simple edit of an article about a person can change their entire life story. Facts are often incorrectly presented or assumed, making it a playground for pranksters who edit profiles. The community is generally very good at reversing these issues, making a prank or false update disappear relatively quickly once the problem has been brought to light.
Is Wikipedia better than a traditional encyclopedia? That really depends on what you’re searching for.