People give Wikipedia a hard time. It’s unreliable, unfair, unbalanced and full of heinous communist lies.
Wikipedia is a great resource for a wider breadth of knowledge than you’ll ever be party to. Moreover, it’s the kind of online resource that really gets my intellectual fervor going. If I start out on the main page and find a nifty article about a long-dead revolutionary Armenian poet, I’ll click on a link from there.
Pretty soon I have tabs open for proletarian literature, autodidacticism and educational psychology. This isn’t just stuff I just decide to look up everyday. I’ve read about mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan only because of Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is more reliable than anyone I know, and more accessible. If I asked my friends about how the “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” affected the art of Francis Bacon‘s contemporaries and, eventually, the whole of British art, they’d be clueless. Wikipedia gives me at least a start.
Treat Wikipedia like you treat your friends. Correct it when it’s wrong — spelling and grammar included — and it’s perfectly fine to ask it something if you have a vague, fleeting curiosity on a subject.
I wouldn’t cite my friends as a source because, after all, they could be wrong. Likewise, don’t cite Wikipedia in the big term paper. Your professor will probably flunk you out of spite and frustration.
If your friend doesn’t quote from a book or class to back him up, you probably wouldn’t trust him. Likewise, check a given Wikipedia article for footnotes and citations.
Who knows? Maybe that website in a Wikipedia article’s bibliography could very nicely etch out a spot for itself in the works cited of that big term paper of yours.
Unlike your friends, Wikipedia has dedicated volunteer staff diligently checking it to make sure it’s fair, accurate, important and balanced.
While Wikipedia also has dedicated volunteer staff diligently misreporting the facts — sometimes on purpose — the most egregious unsourced articles tend to have a tag right at the top. As of this writing, there are approximately a bazillion articles tagged as needing sources.
As with your friend, be skeptical of outlandish claims. Don’t always trust Wikipedia. Take what it says with a grain of salt — that’s basically all there is to it.
Wikipedia does exactly what it was meant to do. It’s just not meant to be infallible.