Wikipedia

Introduction - is an intro to Wikipedia even necessary?

Knowledge is power, or so many people would think. Nowadays, when it is just a few keystrokes away, the focus has moved from the availability and access to knowledge to the quality and verifiability of it. Wikipedia is one of the most popular and most frequented sites in existence today. It was founded by the non-profit Wikimedia foundation. It stems from the radical idea of giving everyone on Earth not only access to a free encyclopedia, but the ability to add to and edit it. It is freely licensed and the content – more than 18 million articles in 269 active languages, 3.6 million in English - is added and edited by an all-volunteer staff. Free licensing does not only mean that everyone can access and edit the information, but also that it may be redistributed for personal or commercial purposes.

Content Generation and Vandalism Prevention

While the community based approach to summing up information may not yield accurate and unbiased information, Wikipedia adopts certain philosophies, as well as the aid of software, to strive for professional (or even higher; remember that the average Wikipedia contributor is someone who is participating in the writing of an encyclopedia for fun) standards regarding the quality of content. According to Wales, it is essential that anyone who posts on Wikipedia agrees to keep to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy – that emphasis will not be placed on the traditional concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’, for those would raise inconsistencies and disagreements, but rather focus on offering a neutral point of view. This means that Wikipedia, similar to a news publication without a point of view, does not take a stand on a controversial issue, rather reports on what reputable sources have said. Wales has stated that the problem that would give birth to controversies would not be the existence of different points of view, but rather that there are those who choose to be thoughtful and those who are ‘jerks’ (direct quote on the use of that word). That said, people do not always immediately apply this philosophy, and trouble makers who may use articles as a means of conducting a virtual war are often asked to leave to maintain this concept of neutrality.

Without the software and the abilities presented by the internet, a collaborative project of that size seems almost impossible and would definitely take a lot longer due to physical restraints. One benefit, at least from my perspective, offered by the use of the internet to maintain such a project is the possibility of anonymity. Alone, anonymity would put the project at risk of being virtually vandalized, but coupled with certain abilities the software presents that risk is minimized. The wiki nature of Wikipedia allows for real time peer review. Having done some minor editing myself, I am familiar with the host of tools in a Wikipedia contributor’s disposal. Recent changes are displayed conveniently in a user friendly recent changes page, as well as being fed into monitored IRC channels, having RSS feed support and even giving the option of receiving an email with the changes. This means that not only is the removal of meaningless articles and reversal of vandalistic changes very quick, but also that when an article is first posted it may quickly generate interest, at which point content would be generated quickly and undergo their neutrality, reliability and quality control measures.

Governance

Wales has commented that the method of governance of Wikipedia internally is confusing to some and may be referred to as a “workable mix of consensus”. They try to avoid voting on issues such as the removal of information. Votes are taken into account buy are not the only deciding factor, as it is often the case that neutrality does not coincide with the majority view. A certain amount of democracy is incorporated, such the administrators – who have the ability to delete information but not the right to – being elected, as well as a degree of aristocracy, where a member’s history and experience with the Wikipedia community may give a little more weight to their voice – within the bounds of neutrality of course. Wales has likened his role somewhat to that of a monarch, in case action needs to be taken in an obvious direction without being held down by the formal decision making process of a democracy, such as an online group voting on the deletion of a certain article to their own interest. Wales has stated that they are not fanatical web anarchists, that they are flexible with social methodology and “will not allow the openness and freedom [of the site] to undermine the quality of content” and that their passion lies with the quality of their work rather than the process of building a website.

Reliability - or lack-there-of

While Wikipedia is open to the public and allows experts and non-experts to write, add to and edit articles, a study published in 2007 showed that the majority of persistent information (i.e. that which has not been deleted) was added by a minority of users. This was accomplished by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota analyzing the number of views articles had, who had contributed and what of their original contribution remained at the times of viewing, quantified in persistent word views (PVW). This study also revealed that some of the top contributors were bots (applications that run automated tasks), carefully programmed in order not to obstruct or destroy information.
To me, as a university student, it feels like Wikipedia has grown to be greatly useful tool for getting a general idea about a certain topic or in some cases an in-detail starting point for further research. A lot of the time Wikipedia is not considered an acceptable academic source, perhaps due to the anonymity of contributors and thus the lack of fully trusted sources. This may at first appear troublesome to someone like me, fascinated by the wealth of information on there and the readiness of its availability. However, Wikipedia is strictly against plagiarism, which means that they will supposedly strive to only use verifiable sources and cite them, making Wikipedia a valuable research aid, as arguably nothing is wrong with referring to the sources an article has cited since that may be a valid academic source.

References

Jimmy Wales on the Birth of Wikipedia - TED : http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jimmy_wales_on_the_birth_of_wikipedia.html.

Priedhorsky, Reid; Chen, Jilin; Lam, Shyong (Tony); Panciera, Katherine; Terveen, Loren; Riedl, John (2007). "Creating, Destroying, and Restoring Value in Wikipedia". Proceedings of the 2007 international ACM conference on Supporting group work.

Katharine Q. Seelye (4 December 2005). "Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar". New York Times.

IBM Collaborative User Experience Research Group, 2003 : http://www.research.ibm.com/visual/projects/history_flow/results.htm.

[and of course!] http://www.wikipedia.com