And it’s not lots of other things too, according to this page of imploring guidance for contributors (as all of us potentially are): it’s not a soapbox, a link repository, a dictionary, a publisher, a vehicle for original thought, a directory, a textbook, or something that is censored.
Except, of course, it’s all of these things and more. As anyone with even a few days’ experience of writing or editorial work knows, impartiality is both a useful ideal and an impossibility (something that’s far from being a contradiction in terms) because every act of selection comes from an individual perspective, with all of that individual’s ignorances and aspirations—and this begins the moment our fingers first touch the keyboard and we wonder what is and isn’t worth talking about.
Standards, like wikipedia’s much-vaunted “impartiality,” are vital because they temper and enhance our individuality, and allow us to produce something useful—something that can be grasped by others because it has a purpose, in the light of which both we and they can incrementally augment, edit and correct it. But there is no perfect embodiment of these standards waiting at the end of the process; nor even a stable continuum on which our success can be measured. There is simply a set of assumptions that allow all involved to create a usable tool—and the fight over what is and isn’t to be considered reasonable and relevant is both thoroughly vicious and important (as the talk pages of any controversial wikipedia article witness).
As for wikipedia not being a dictionary, textbook or vehicle for debate—well, all the editors in the world can’t stop it being used as these things, and shouldn’t want to. The dangers lie in unthinking use, and in mistaking any compendium of articles for something they’re not: the final word. I’m reminded of a series of stories Isaac Asimov wrote about a supercomputer called Multivac; a vast machine used to store and process all human knowledge. In one delightful reductio ad absurdum, Multivac’s powers are employed to select a “representative voter” in the United States—one individual whom it has determined to be the most representative person in the entire population, and whose inclinations can be used to infer the feelings of the entire country and thus to determine who should fill every elected office.
It’s a wise and prescient satire: and a useful reminder that, actuality being the irreducible and endlessly…