On the Internet, there is no such thing as a point of reference, as they exist in the offline world. Indeed, we have all come to consider certain books, magazines or newspapers as “serious” and pointing people towards a select group of publications is considered acceptable, even sometimes a sign of political and economical awareness. In France, for example, if you wish to recommend a “neutral” and “good” newspaper, you would direct people towards Le Monde while recommending any of that paper’s competitors would come across as a political message.
Truth is, there is no such thing as a “neutral” and “good” publication — and not even Le Monde can qualify for that status. Every single publication out there has its faults and a real expert in a field can almost always dismantle and prove wrong any article that would make it to a general publication. Since there is however a need for such reference points to exist, at least in the abstract, we have come to a consensus around them.
The Internet, being so culturally diverse and “fluid”, in that information circulates a lot more quickly than through traditional channels, has not yet allowed for the establishment of such references. No matter what you cite, someone can accuse you of being partial, politically biased or to engage in some shady propaganda practices. Why? For a slew of reasons ranging from the lack of a good time-tested reference point to the ease with which WHOIS databases can be polled to reveal links between sites and organizations one wouldn’t have linked otherwise.
Enter Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia editable and reviewable by everyone. Instinctively, I believe we all know this is not a guarantee of accuracy or seriousness — nor does it prevent them, of course. After all, the chances experts on nuclear fission are roaming on the web, willing to share their knowledge for free and to take the time to post on Wikipedia are few. And even if these good people were to post there, should their opinion on Keynes be trusted? When it comes to Wikipedia, what matters is its editable quality: since there is no single editor and since we have no control over what the site will display when our readers will go consult it, we can always claim “it has changed” (most people aren’t familiar with Wikipedia’s revision histories) or “it’s not my opinion”.
By mixing everybody’s voice, Wikipedia does provide something no other encyclopedia can provide: anonymity and distance. Recommending Wikipedia is not recommending one text, it is recommending a range of possibles, opening a door to some more information but denying any stance on it.
Is Wikipedia good? So far, it has served me well and I wish the project all the success it deserves. But even if it were to become the worst, most inaccurate encyclopedia around, it would still have its place on the web.