In contrast to traditional encyclopaedias which are edited by professionals and whose articles are contributed by academics and experts and then checked for accuracy, Wikipedia is created by any internet user with no guarantees for accuracy.
It is a notoriously unreliable source of information for that reason, and the degree to which the US judiciary has relied on it will shock many observers. Even circuit courts of appeal, which are only one step below the Supreme Court, have cited Wikipedia as an information source.
"Wikipedia is a terrific resource,” Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago told the New York Times. “Partly because it so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate.”
Posner did concede that the source is not always the appropriate one to use, though. “It wouldn’t be right to use it in a critical issue. If the safety of a product is at issue, you wouldn’t look it up in Wikipedia," he said.
Some courts have used the source, with its youth culture associations, to explain germane elements of youth culture that no traditional encyclopaedia would even explain. An Iowa court used it to explain that 'jungle juice' refers to alcoholic drinks consumed purely to get drunk. A Florida court used it to discover that 'booty music' had a high tempo and sexually explicit lyrics.
Wikipedia was created as a free, open and fast-changing alternative to traditional encyclopaedias and has not only been itself a runaway success but has inspired a whole new approach to research and information publishing and storage. The wiki phenomenon has been embraced by the corporate as much as the web and the open source worlds.
The site is now one of the world's top 20 by visitors and had 38 million unique visitors in the US in December.