Have you ever been in a discussion with someone who uses the Wikipedia to illustrate a point, but when you look at the entry, you realize it is wrong? Or, perhaps you were browsing through a wiki on your own and spotted a mistake? Or, maybe you have been to an entry that was recently hacked?
Wikis are great tools, and in many ways they are superior to more traditional ways of finding information. Some of the biggest benefits of wikis are the speed in which entries can be entered, the sheer volume and variety, and the expertise that can go into even the most obscure entry.
But the same features that make wikis great also present a dark side.
Downside of Wikis - Wrong Information
Even experts can be wrong. Historians do not always agree on history, and scientists do not always agree on science. Wiki entries are sometimes written by experts, and sometimes written by not-so-much-experts. They can be a great form of quick reference, but before you rely too much on an entry, it can be a good idea to verify the information.
Should you verify everything? Of course not. Wikis wouldn't be a great source of information if you always had to verify it. But, while relying on a wiki to provide you with more information on Harrison Ford is fine, relying on a community wiki for the possible drug interactions between your heart pressure medicine and your cholesterol medicine is probably something you want to verify somewhere else.
Downside of Wikis - Misinformation
Not to be confused with wrong information, misinformation is another problem that plagues community wikis. Misinformation is the deliberate placement of wrong information. And, because it is often dressed up to blend in with the entry, it can be difficult to spot.
Why would someone deliberately put wrong information in a wiki entry? There are many reasons ranging from corporate espionage to just to do it. Companies have been accused of changing the entries of their rivals, and people who are famous can be targeted as an electronic form of a practical joke.
Downside of Wikis - Hacked Entries
Sometimes, the wrong information takes a more obvious form. A hacked entry might look something like: "This is **** and **** and I think ****." (Feel free to substitute in the appropriate four-letter words.)
The downside for allowing anyone to edit an entry is that anyone can edit an entry. One of the many wonderful things the Internet has brought us is electronic vandalism.
Downside of Wikis - Marketing Entries
Not too long ago, I was on craigslist and spotted an advertisement from a B-list movie star seeking a freelance writer to create a Wikipedia entry about them.
Anything in the public spotlight is going to be used for marketing purposes, and wikis are no different. This type of entry would more than likely have valid information, but it would be written from a biased standpoint. While the list of movies our B-list movie star appeared in may be accurate, the entry may omit that period of time when directors would not work with him because of his problem with alcohol.
The Wiki Way
These downsides are caused by the same thing that makes wikis so great: anyone can edit them. And they are also offset by that very same reason.
While an entry may be hacked, it won't stay hacked for long on a popular wiki. And, while wrong information may exist, anyone can come along and provide a correction.
So, don't let these downsides scare you away from wikis. They are a wonderful source of information. Like anything from your eighth grade history book to a sports column on your favorite team, they should be read with the knowledge that they can provide great information, but they aren't etched in stone.