A concept I discuss with great passion when I’m talking to friends and peers about writing in the 21st century is being “relevant”. It’s a theme that has popped up a lot in my blogs over the years, and in posts such as Being Relevant In a Modern World. And something that has noticeably changed in the 21st century is the way we approach research as a whole, and what is acceptable as forms of research for papers, articles, website content, and so on and so forth. It’s a topic a great many writers focus on in recent years, and some writers like Nick Usborne have a firm grasp on how the industry is moving ahead, as can be seen in this excerpt from his latest book, New Path to Riches. I actually read this a few weeks back, but I’ve been percolating and doing some research of my own since then, and finally found the time to put down some thoughts about the subject.
Research, in its broadest form, can be described as a search for knowledge or any systematic investigation to establish facts. There are a variety of ways for your research to be considered credible, and that’s the crux of the issue as we move further into the 21st century. One of the things I think Mr. Usborne has correct is the concept of being slaves to media. Prior to the advent of the digital age we consumers were relegated to only knowing what the media chose for us to know. We were forced to get our news from programs like 60 Minutes or The Today Show. Any sort of “facts” were required to be proven by someone with a PhD in their given field, and we–the consumers–were only allowed to learn what they wanted us to learn. We only knew what was published in their magazines, shown on their TV, or written in their books. This allowed those fact-givers to establish themselves as “kings”, and now that their positions are threatened they are doing everything they can to try and retain that power.
Enter the Internet. Specifically, Wikipedia. Suddenly people all over the world are allowed to share their knowledge, and we the consumers are no longer relegated to information funneled to us through the “official” sources. Naturally, this is cause for contention. Humans fear change. They especially fear change when the status quo is upset. And for the many accredited professionals in the field who dominated the “who gets to learn what” market, they have a reason to be upset. We the consumers are no longer relying on those privileged few to tell us what we need to know and how we need to learn. We now have a wide variety of sources to gather information, and we are in control of what information we want to see.
Humanity evolves continually. The printing press gave way to the printer which gave way to magazines and books which gave way to websites and hand-held readers. Stone tools gave way to steel which gave way to gunpowder which gave way to bullets and other weapons. Jumping off of buildings with home-made wings gave way to airplanes which gave way to spacecraft which allowed us to reach into the space beyond Earth. The list could go on. We, as a species, are continually evolving. Education is one of the ways we evolve. Knowledge is power. And the hoarding of knowledge is something that only hampers us as a species.
There are a wide range of debates in recent years as to what should be considered acceptable forms of research, but what humanity is discovering is that the old ways of doing things are no longer the preferred, or even the accepted. It used to be that if you wanted to know something about something you went to the person who was lucky enough or privileged enough to be published in some fancy book or magazine or allowed to be shown on TV. They were the ones who controlled the flow of information. However, there are a great many qualified professionals that were never published in the “important” publications, and never had a spotlight shone on them on TV. Should their research be discredited simply because it wasn’t part of mass media?
Enter the digital age. Wikipedia. Many professionals take offense to the fact that any person can come in and edit a Wiki article, and while I can appreciate that view it’s important to understand that there are literally millions of people viewing Wikipedia worldwide, and as a general rule of thumb Wiki articles are fairly accurate and if an error does occur it will be fixed within minutes. Sure, someone could come along and change the Wiki entry on the Moon to say that it’s called Tuparakinafis and revolves around the planet Tharmemetus, but that information would literally be changed within moments to the way it needs to be in order for historical and scientific accuracy to be preserved.
A note of interest: if you take a look at the reliability and accuracy ratings of Wikipedia, you will find that they have increasingly high standards applied to their content, and the ratings are only getting better with time. Of particular note are the accuracy ratings in comparison to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which is something that Mr. Usborne touches on in his book, as well. As you can see, Wikipedia is considered just as accurate as traditional methods of research, and in many cases is superior because of the simple fact that Wiki can be edited the moment new research is brought to light, while traditional encyclopedias take years in some cases to rectify their mistakes or omissions because they are “traditional” and require literal months and years to get anything changed.
Furthermore, the amount of information that can be complied via Wikipedia is far larger than what a traditional encyclopedia can contain because of the simple numbers. Traditional publishing requires vast resources and in many cases hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in order for a new volume to be published, while Wikipedia and online sources cost literally pennies in comparison. A typical website can be operated for tens of dollars per month in comparison, and while Wiki definitely costs more than that to run, the simple costs of an online reference are staggering in comparison to traditional formats, which is something I’ve touched on in the past in articles like Rates: What Determines Them?
Traditional researchers and publishers have been stamping their foot with great force regarding the simple fact that they are dying out like the dinosaur. Humanity has grown beyond requiring a trip to the library and dealing with bulky, dusty, out-of-date references. We are living in the information age. Information changes by the minute, and we (the informed consumer) can no longer rely upon publications that take literal years to adapt their data to the current changes. For those of us living in the digital age with a digital mindset the information needs to be available at the click of a button, and places like Wikipedia provide that. We understand that it is not a be-all-end-all source of information, but neither are books in the library or articles published in scientific journals. Anyone researching a topic uses multiple sources to be as accurate as possible, and with Wiki in particular it is only getting better with time, and when used in conjunction with other sources can help provide us with accurate, detailed, and up-to-date information on a wide array of topics, without the use of traditional publications who take potentially years between publications to update their data.
In addition, more and more universities are transferring their libraries into digital format, which means we have more and more access to information that is considered “credible”, and that information is being linked to Wikipedia articles, allowing Wiki to gain more and more credibility as time goes on. As more and more content is transferred to digital format it allows for more and more references to be cited, and isn’t that the real reason that the people against Wikipedia have been objecting? A lack of citable references?
In the end, Wikipedia is actually one of the most accurate and up-to-date sources of information that consumers have, and as time goes on it is only becoming more so. The advent of digital libraries is allowing Wiki authors to directly reference the publications where their information is coming from, effectively silencing the clamoring of those old-fashioned dinosaurs who refuse to evolve with the times. Celebrate your freedom, the freedom of information, and relish your ability to determine for yourself what you should or shouldn’t know.