So the Internet Loves Wikipedia – But Should It?

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I admit it; the idea of suggesting that any kind of political protest can end up having “winners” and “losers” feels more than a little as if I’ve missed the point of protesting, or at least have a particularly biased interest in the outcome of whatever issue the protest is meant to influence.

But no matter what side of the SOPA/PIPA debate you may be on, it’d be hard to deny that one participant in yesterday’s internet blackout seemingly benefited more than others. If nothing else, the January 18 blackout proved just how much the internet at large loves (and maybe even needs) Wikipedia.

(GALLERY: Ten Prominent Websites Protesting SOPA and PIPA)

Actually, it’s tempting to suggest that Reddit should also be claiming some kind of victory from the entire affair, even if it wasn’t the same kind of victory that Wikipedia can boast about. Even if the internet didn’t seemingly lose its collective mind without the ability to go to Reddit to check out the most recent AMA, the fact that Reddit originated and organized the blackout in the first place proved that it was, if not necessarily a force for good in everyone’s eyes, then at least a force to be reckoned with when it comes to shaping future political or social policy that could affect internet access and freedom of online speech. There’s a discussion to be had about what kind of community Reddit is, and what it has the potential to become from this point on.

While the idea of Wikipedia going black to protest SOPA and PIPA discussions felt like a big deal ahead of time, I’m not sure many people were prepared for the reaction the move received yesterday. Not only did a large number of sites — including Techland — offer suggestions to “survive” the blackout, including ways to work around the block so that the site was still available for those who really, really needed it, but the reaction on social media was somewhere between laughable and horrific.

Seeing students tweet messages like “i am so f*cked if Wikipedia is blacked out. I might as well drop out of school” and “If wikipedia gets banned I’m definately failing my degree..” was a very bizarre experience indeed. Had the internet developed wiki addiction (“Wikidiction,” maybe?) without even realized it?

(MORE: SOPA: Reddit Confirms January 18 Blackout; Wikipedia, Others May Follow)

What’s especially surprising about this is that it wasn’t really that long ago that conventional wisdom about Wikipedia was that it was unreliable due to its crowdsourced nature and just how easily articles could be vandalized. Remember stories like this?

The site has undoubtedly improved itself in recent years, with more editorial oversight as well as the ability for users to rate the quality and objectivity of articles on the site, but what I find particularly curious about the uproar surrounding Wikipedia’s day-long disappearance is the recurring idea that Wikipedia has officially become an entirely reliable source of information, despite having an estimated 32% more inaccuracies and omissions than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Is it a case of Wikipedia’s assumption of authority being blindly accepted by a user base that doesn’t know any better — or even to question its accuracy in the first place? — or, more worryingly, that 68% of Britannica’s accuracy is good enough for everyone?

I’m not asking this as a condemnation of Wikipedia or its users. As I’ve said, the site has constantly improved its accuracy and level of oversight and ability to correct mistakes in a timely manner since its creation, and the crowdsource model it works under makes 100% accuracy almost an impossibility, after all. And I find myself checking things on Wikipedia constantly, even if I sometimes go on to look a little further if something seems suspect.

But the collective panic displayed by the internet yesterday — and other sites’ attempts to fill the vacuum left behind when Wikipedia went dark — showed just how important and unique the site really is in the current internet landscape. I think back to the “pledge drive” Wikipedia recently completed, looking for funding to continue operating this year, and imagine next year’s drive having banners that simply read, “Remember When You All Lost Your Minds When We Disappeared For One Day In January? Want Us To Do That Again? Really?”

And for that alone, I feel as if we should be paying more attention to where Wikipedia goes wrong, and holding it up to a higher standard than other sites. If Wikipedia is the recorded source of information for so many people, after all, isn’t it the site’s responsibility — and because of the way Wikipedia works, our responsibility — to ensure that it’s the best it could possibly be?

MORE: MPAA Chairman Calls SOPA Blackouts a ‘Dangerous’ Gimmick

Disclosure: Time Inc. parent company Time Warner supports SOPA legislation.

Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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