Picture this: actual Wikipedia news

by Paul Jay, CBC News.ca

On Friday, the BBC said Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales now supports the use of the online encyclopedia in classrooms, a seeming reversal from his previous position that students shouldn't rely on Wikipedia, or as he said in 2006: "For God sake, you’re in college; don’t cite the encyclopedia.”

Now, the BBC reports, Wales has changed his tune.

"You can ban kids from listening to rock 'n' roll music, but they're going to anyway," the BBC quoted Wales, who was speaking at the Online Information conference at London's Olympia Exhibition Centre.

"It's the same with information, and it's a bad educator that bans their students from reading Wikipedia."

Which sounds like a story, until you read it and realize that what Wales said this week is basically the same thing he said a year ago. As the BBC writes:

As long as an article included accurate citations, [Wales] said he had "no problem" with it being used as a reference for students, although academics would "probably be better off doing their own research".

That isn't quite the same thing as telling students to rush off to take the encyclopedia as gospel. And admonishing schools for banning their students "from reading Wikipedia" hardly seems a controversial stance. Reading, after all, isn't writing.

It's been a weird week for coverage of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. On Tuesday the Register ran a breathless piece about a "secret mailing list" of higher-level Wikipedia administrators, one it said was acting to crush contributors who seemed suspicious. But while the actual leaked letter and discussion that started the controversy is an interesting insight into paranoia, most readers may find it interesting only if they have a special place in their heart for office politics. Mathew Ingram's /work blog has a good summation of the non-story.

I've written in the past on the potential foibles of Wikipedia, particularly the inherent ups-and-downs of letting anybody make changes to entries and also the potential dangers when we, as a society, rely too much on it or any similar source of information.

But neither of these stories is the controversy people are making them out to be.

Amid the chatter, however, an interesting Wikipedia story slipped under the radar - on Monday the NY Times reported that Wikipedia is considering using a $20,000 US donation to pay artists to create "key illustrations" for the website.

As Wikipedia's Brianna Laugher told the Times, "I think there is a difference between paying people to get the whole going versus paying people to do the parts that volunteers apparently don’t find rewarding. The illustration project is definitely the latter."

For a site reliant for the most part on volunteers to contribute text, it will be interesting to see how the online encyclopedia implements such a project without ruffling feathers.

It also appears to illustrate something else, too - in the world of social media, a picture is worth a lot more than a thousand words.