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First written 9/27/09

Despite all of the very valid criticisms that can be made about Wikipedia, it can be a legitimately useful source of information. A close look at the pages for the 2009 film Surrogates and the Democratic Republic of Congo reveal a great deal about the site’s usefulness. As can be seen in figure 1 above, the inclusion of recent information is more possible with a web-based reference source whose content is user-generated. Wikipedia may be updated at any hour of any day by anyone. For subjects like a film released last Friday (Surrogates) and a country known for is recent and relatively frequent name and political changes (the DRC), Wikipedia is a useful place to begin. Between Thursday, September twenty-fourth and Sunday, September twenty-seventh, the page for Surrogates expanded greatly (see fig. 3 & 4 below). The page’s “Plot” section grew from one to five lengthy paragraphs, and a section entitled “Reception,” which included a sentence about the film’s average rating on a website that aggregates film critics’ reviews (RottenTomatoes.com), was added. Undoubtedly, changes will continue to occur to the Surroates page as the film runs its course in theaters and is released for home viewing.

The DRC Wikipedia page experienced far less change between September twenty-fourth and twenty-seventh. Wikipedia is a website whose updates tend to occur most often when much activity regarding a given subject is occurring. We can only presume that the reason for the lack of DRC page updates stems from the lack of recent international attention and/or volatile activity in the country. Looking at the history tab for the DRC page reveals that September twenty-fourth is the last time the page was updated, and the twentieth was the last update before that. The only change made on the twenty-fourth was to the phrase “Congo free state.” The words free and state became capitalized (see fig. 6 below).

The biggest obstacle when using Wikipedia to find information comes in the form of authority. Are the resources listed in a page’s reference area correct? What makes the information posted by “Lars T.” (the Wikipedia user who capitalized “free state” on the DRC page) trustworthy? What are his (or her) credentials? The most appealing aspects about Wikipedia, the user-generated content and its ability to be constantly updated, are simultaneously its qualities most information experts critique. Wikipedia is an excellent, broad place to begin a research endeavor, but use this source with caution. Use Wikipedia as a stepping stone to direct your pursuit of information, but remember to check its and all of your sources.

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