The all-conquering encyclopedia of the twenty-first century is, famously, the first such work to have been compiled entirely by uncredentialled volunteers. It is also the first reference work ever produced as a way of killing time during coffee breaks. Not the least of Wikipedia’s wonders is to have done away with the drudgery that used to be synonymous with the writing of reference works. An army of anonymous, tech-savvy people ”“ mostly young, mostly men ”“ have effortlessly assembled and organized a body of knowledge unparalleled in human history. “Effortlessly” in the literal sense of without significant effort: when you have 27,842,261 registered editors (not all of them active, it is true), plus an unknown number of anonymous contributors, the odd half-hour here and there soon adds up to a pretty big encyclopedia.
One of the most common gripes about ÂWikipedia is that it pays far more attention to PokÃ©mon and Game of Thrones than it does to, say, sub-Saharan Africa or female novelists. Well, perhaps; the most widely repeated variants of “Wikipedia has more information on x than y” are in fact largely fictitious (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_has_more”¦). Given the manner of its compilation, the accursed thing really is a whole lot more reliable than it has any right to be. Like many university lecturers, I used to warn my own students off using Wikipedia (as pointless an injunction as telling them not to use Google, or not to leave their essay to the last minute). I finally gave up doing so about three years ago, after reading a paper by an expert on South Asian coinage in which the author described the Wikipedia entry on the Indo-Greek Kingdom (c.200 BC”“AD 10) as the most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history to be found anywhere ”“ quite true, though not necessarily as much of a compliment to Wikipedia as you might think.
As Lynch rightly notes, the problem with Wikipedia is not so much its reliability ”“ which is, for most purposes, perfectly OK ”“ as its increasing ubiquity as a source of information. “