Wikipedia explained

This is an edited extract from a piece I wrote for the book Digital Culture edited by Glen Creeber & Royston Martin, published December 2008.

It follows on from the little introduction to Web 2.0.

The best-known and probably most remarkable embodiment of the 'Web 2.0' ethos is Wikipedia, succinctly described on its main page as 'The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit' (www.wikipedia.org). A wiki is a website that any visitor can add to, and amend, using a normal web browser. Wikipedia did not invent the concept, and was not the first wiki, but within a few months of its launch in 2001, it was by far the most widely recognised wiki in the world. Alongside each wiki page there is a discussion page, and a history of all edits, so that its development is transparent. If a page is vandalised – or amended in a way you happen to disagree with – it can be restored to a former version, via the history page.

Wikipedia grew out of Nupedia (2000–03), a free online encyclopedia written by experts, set up by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. This had the open-source, free licenced content ethos of its successor, but as Wales recalls:

[Nupedia] was no fun for the volunteer writers because we had a lot of academic peer review committees who would criticise articles and give feedback. It was like handing in an essay at grad school, and basically intimidating to participate in.

(Jimmy Wales interviewed in Marks, 2007: 44)

Frustration with this process led Sanger to suggest they set up a wiki as an extra feature for Nupedia, a proposal that Wales quickly warmed to. (The 'History of Wikipedia' article at Wikipedia gives the full story, naturally). Wales says:

Our idea was very radical: that every person on the planet would have access to an open-source, free online work that was the sum of all human knowledge. Within about two weeks I knew it was going to work. By that time we already had more articles online than we had in nearly two years with Nupedia.

(Jimmy Wales interviewed in Marks, 2007: 44)

In 2003, Wales founded the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit charitable organisation, and donated Wikipedia to it, an act intended to secure its non-commercial future. In doing so, Wales surrendered the opportunity to sell Wikipedia, potentially losing out on an estimated $3 billion (!).

When I first drafted this article in February 2007, Wikipedia had over six million articles in 250 languages, including 1.6 million in the English edition. Over 75,000 people had made more than five edits during the previous month, January 2007, whilst many thousands more will have been less frequent contributors. Academic print publishing can be really slow, and a year later this book had still not entered production, so I asked to have the chance the update these numbers. So, by April 2008, Wikipedia had expanded to over ten million articles in 253 languages, including 2.3 million in the English edition, and Wikipedia had moved up to number nine in the global website rankings (www.alexa.com). By this point Wikipedia seems to be so big that some of the automated statistics systems are no longer able to calculate some of its growth (but check http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Statistics). In any case, it is one of the obvious flaws of print publishing that these figures will be out of date by the time you read this. Happily, and unsurprisingly, Wikipedia itself contains a good selection of articles about itself, including 'Wikipedia', 'Wikipedia: About', and in particular 'Wikipedia: Replies to common objections', which I recommend you read for up-to-date facts and viewpoints.

Wikipedia greatly benefits from the passion and expertise of enthusiasts in thousands of scientific, technical, hobby, craft and pop culture topics. It is a good example of the 'long tail' phenomenon (Anderson, 2004, 2006): both Wikipedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica will include articles on key topics in art, science, geography and history, but only Wikipedia will have detailed articles on new or not-very-popular rock bands, individual railway stations, obscure computing issues, movies and TV series, Scottish Renaissance poetry, Muppet characters, knitting techniques, and anything else that some people are into but which there wouldn't be room for in a published encyclopedia. Because communities of enthusiasts collaborate to create encyclopedia-style factual articles about their area of interest, a kind of frenzy of friendly-but-competitive fascination tends to generate precise and carefully-composed articles on every subject.

Don't fear the wiki

Students from various schools and colleges often tell me that their tutors have informed them that Wikipedia is an unreliable source of information which should not be referred to – and this seems to be common (see, for example, Jaschik, 2007). This is clearly the opposite of Web 2.0 thinking – it is 'Do fear the internet!'. However the notion that any statement that anybody has ever managed to get into a book or article is going to be inherently better than Wikipedia content clearly doesn't make sense, especially as Wikipedia is subject to continuous checking and updating – precisely unlike anything in print. It is now a long time (in terms of Wikipedia's growth) since a study published in the science journal Nature compared Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica and found that – and I quote – 'Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries':

The exercise revealed numerous errors in both encyclopaedias, but among 42 entries tested, the difference in accuracy was not particularly great: the average science entry in Wikipedia contained around four inaccuracies; Britannica, about three.

(Giles, 2005: 900)

Furthermore, unlike its rival, Wikipedia gets substantially better every month, and we can reasonably expect that it is now far better than it was in 2005.

Some of the concern about Wikipedia seems to be that its information cannot be attributed to a particular 'expert' author (although it can be attributed to a specific version of an article, which remains fixed and stored under the 'History' tab, with details of all changes and their contributors). This sweet faith in singular 'experts' is wholly overturned by the assumptions of Wikipedia. In the online collaborative process which generates every Wikipedia article, people with varying degrees of expertise (who may include traditional experts, as well as students, amateurs and enthusiasts) engage in a dialogue from which the 'ideal' form of an article evolves. Therefore trust needs to be placed in this process, rather than in, say, the formal qualifications of individuals, as Clay Shirky suggests:

A former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica has likened Wikipedia to a public toilet, in an attempt to say 'there's no source of authority here; we have a source of authority, whereas they don't'. In fact what Wikipedia presages is a change in the nature of authority. Prior to Britannica, most encyclopaedias derived their authority from the author. Britannica came along and made the relatively radical assertion that you could vest authority in an institution. You trust Britannica, and then we in turn go out and get the people to write the articles. What Wikipedia suggests is that you can vest authority in a visible process. As long as you can see how Wikipedia's working, and can see that the results are acceptable, you can come over time to trust that. And that is a really profound challenge to our notions of what it means to be an institution, what it means to trust something, what it means to have authority in this society.

(Shirky, 2006; see also Shirky, 2008)

For those who feel that society has become fundamentally decadent, antisocial, selfish and doomed, the flourishing world of Wikipedia offers a strong suggestion that this may not be the case. Instead, here we see people spending many hours collaborating on building an accessible resource for others, for very little personal reward. Certainly, some people may gain a sense of not-purely-altruistic well-being from having the opportunity to show off their knowledge, but Wikipedia contributors get nothing more than occasional kudos from other contributors. Of course, contributing to the site may also fulfil the basic human need to feel a part of a community, and provide a sense of belonging. The authors of books and articles, such as this one, are incredibly vain and isolated by comparison. (Fancy putting your name on it!). Wikipedia embodies an optimistic ethos which, to the dismay of committed cynics, actually seems to work.

So, perhaps you're thinking that this all sounds nice in theory, but aren't there lots of problems with it in practice? Well, let's consider some common arguments about Wikipedia.

Don't people always mess it up?

Well no, on the whole, they just don't. At any particular moment there may be an instance of vandalism happening somewhere within the millions of articles, but these are usually soon corrected by others. Some articles are 'protected' (cannot be edited) or 'semi-protected' (cannot be edited by new users), due to high levels of vandalism, but there are surprisingly few of these. (See 'Wikipedia: List of protected pages'). The encyclopedia always aspires to have articles unprotected. At the time of writing, fully protected articles include passive smoking, Steffi Graf and surrealism (!). The semi-protected list includes more predictable targets such as George W. Bush, alongside Paris Hilton, Adolf Hitler, oral sex and Jesus. On the whole, though, an incredible majority of internet users seem to respect the Wikipedia project, and either do not have – or manage to resist – the unhelpful urge to spoil it.

Straightforward vandalism is easily spotted. A greater concern is subtle vandalism – the addition of biased statements, harsh interpretations, or convincing-looking 'facts' which are simply wrong – as well as partisan contributions. But, as with many criticisms of Wikipedia, the answer is simply that over time these things are corrected or balanced. Controversial topics attract people with axes to grind, but then those people are forced into dialogue with others, and a balanced presentation of different viewpoints is arrived at. (This does not mean that controversial views are excluded, but rather that they may end up with whole articles of their own: as in the case of the detailed articles on, for example, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and holocaust denial).

Isn't it just the opinions of people who are not experts?

As we saw above, Wikipedia certainly challenges the traditional idea of the 'expert'. Ultimately it comes down to whether you want to trust one person, who appears to be an expert because of their education and experience, and has written a book or article for some reason – perhaps to advance their career, and/or make money (these are common reasons); or a whole community of people who have an active passion for a subject, and contribute to Wikipedia articles just because they're interested. You may feel there's not a clear-cut answer to this. There's nothing wrong with the individual expert. But the passionate collective sounds like quite a good bet too.

Isn't Wikipedia a juggernaut – like McDonalds?

It might seem to be a worry that Wikipedia is one big, singular, successful thing. If it's so great, this worry goes, how come there's just one of it? Doesn't that make it like other big, monolithic corporations like McDonalds and Microsoft? The answer to this is a strong no, because of the fundamental difference in nature between a profit-making corporation with a small set of elite owners and shareholders, versus a collaborative non-commercial encyclopaedia produced by everybody.

The more people use and contribute to Wikipedia, the better it gets. And it's highly convenient that it has become such a widely-recognised single repository for knowledge – as long as it continues to be managed fairly – for the same reason. If there were 25 reasonably good wiki-based encyclopaedias, the situation would be frustrating because you wouldn't know which one to turn to, and potential contributors wouldn't know which ones to work on. So, unusually, this is a case where it's good to have just one identifiable superstar in the field, so that we can all just work to make this one the best that it can be.

Wikipedia and the public sphere

The German social theorist Jürgen Habermas famously outlined the notion of the 'public sphere' as a forum for rational critical discussion, such as that which took place in eighteenth-century salons and coffee-houses – apparently (Habermas, 1989). This has been taken up by scholars as a kind of ideal model of how the media should work in society, fostering valuable social discussion and keeping a check on the power of the state. Previously, however, this argument had to be focused on news media and journalism, and there was not really much sign of it happening. The public sphere was a useful concept as an 'ideal type' – something we might aspire towards – but there was not really any sign that the mass media was fostering the kind of informed discussion, leading to consensus, that Habermas favoured. On the contrary, rivalry between politicians and political parties, along with competition between journalists and media companies, meant that the public sphere was characterised by unresolved conflict, rather than consensus, on the levels of both big social issues and trivial personality clashes.

Then in the 1990s, the internet became incredibly popular, and Habermas's ideas seemed to be revitalised: here was a place where open, rational discussion could take place freely, where individuals of all points of view could come together as equals, not bound by association to particular media companies, to discuss ideas. However, again, this didn't really seem to happen in practice. Sure, the 'free' debate happened, but was still characterised by partisan hostility and 'flame wars' (increasingly abusive battles fought by people hiding behind the anonymity of text on screen). The internet could bring people together in a discussion which they otherwise might not have had, but (unsurprisingly, perhaps) did not seem to be able to steer them towards any kind of agreement.

Wikipedia, however, may offer a solution. The very process of collaboratively producing an article on a topic with a 'neutral point of view' seems to force those with different viewpoints to acknowledge and deal with their conflicting arguments in a relatively mature manner. The article 'Wikipedia: Replies to common objections' states:

Wikipedia has fairly decent, balanced articles about [for example] war, propaganda, abortion, Scientology, and prostitution. Wikipedia is actually notable as a means of coming to agree on controversy, and has been studied by some researchers for its ability to neutralize the often noxious debates on such topics. [] Partisans from both sides try to push their views on Wikipedia. An example of this is the Cornwall page in which the difficulties over Cornwall's legal status and its relationship to England have over time been worked into what is a largely acceptable form of words to all parties. (The corollary of this particular debate is that the article is far more complete than it would otherwise have been, and certainly makes the point far more accurately than certain other encyclopedias we could mention).

(Wikipedia, 2007)

This suggests that the site where thousands of people come together to collaboratively build an online encyclopedia may have produced, for the first time, an electronically-enabled version of the public sphere that Habermas was talking about.


References

Anderson, Chris (2004), 'The Long Tail', Wired, issue 12:10, October 2004. Available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html.

Anderson, Chris (2006), The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, London: Hyperion.

Berners-Lee, Tim (1999), Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, London: Orion.

Gauntlett, David (2007), Creative Explorations: New approaches to identities and audiences, London: Routledge.

Giles, Jim (2005), 'Internet encyclopaedias go head to head', Nature, 438: 900-901 (15 December 2005). Available at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

Habermas, Jürgen (1989), The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, Cambridge: Polity.

Jaschik, Scott (2007), 'A Stand against Wikipedia', Inside Higher Ed, 26 January 2007, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2007/01/26/wiki

Marks, Paul (2007), 'Knowledge to the people' [interview with Jimmy Wales], New Scientist, 3 February 2007, pp. 44–45.

Shirky, Clay (2006), interviewed on Imagine (episode entitled 'herecomeseverybody.co.uk'), first broadcast in UK on BBC1, 5 December 2006.

Shirky, Clay (2008), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, London: Allen Lane.

Wikipedia (2008), 'Wikipedia: Replies to common objections', accessed on 13 May 2008, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Replies_to_common_objections

 
By David Gauntlett
September 2008