Look it up: Wikipedia turns 10

As Wikipedia celebrates its 10th year, the question remains: Should you trust what you read on the user-powered site?

Jimmy Wales
Wikimedia Foundation’s Sue Gardner says Wikipedia aims to provide ‘the sum-total of all human knowledge’ [AFP]

Forget that old tagline about the Internet being an information “superhighway”. 

The online world is, in fact, an information battlefield, with partisans, pranksters and pragmatists all struggling to be heard above the din. 

And on any given day, you can find a good skirmish on Wikipedia, an encyclopedia of sorts – which celebrates its 10th anniversary on Saturday. 

With around 410 million monthly readers, 3.5 million articles in English alone (as of September 1, 2010, articles were offered in 271 languages) “to Wiki” something has become a way of life for many. 

But these word wars themselves – fought with a mix of facts and fervour – make for a riveting record of discord. For example, US president Barack Obama’s page experienced some fast and furious edits until it was blocked from public editing access, with “birthers” (those who argue that Obama was not born in the US and therefore not legally eligible to be the country’s president) changing Obama’s birthplace to Kenya before it was changed back to Hawaii. 

For the uninitiated, here is how it works: Members of the public get to add and edit entries on Wikipedia – correctly, erroneously, humorously or even maliciously. There are different user group rights, depending on one’s group, with various editing/deleting privileges. However, everyone can create pages, edit most pages, view the “abuse log” and more. 

Wikipedia is fascinating in that it is, in a sense, the ultimate expression of a populist movement and the idea that information should neither be owned nor disseminated by a single gatekeeper or expert. It is self-defined as an encyclopedia, but it is actually a living digital organism that mirrors the minds of its users – brilliant or flawed as they might be. 

With a few hiccups – such as the time founder Jimmy Wales was discovered to have heavily edited his own biographical entry (a Wikipedia faux-pas) – the site has pushed ahead with its egalitarian approach, which includes switching their license to Creative Commons, thereby making it easier for its content to be reused. 

An ethos out of necessity 

Wales once said that making Wikipedia a non-profit was his only real option, as venture capital funds were sparse at the time.

Wikipedia’s $16mn fundraising campagin in 2010 doubled 2009’s donations in a shorter period of time

But given that the speculated value of the site is somewhere between $3 and $7bn, depending on who is doing the speculating – it seems that over the lifetime of the site, its non-profit status has evolved into an ideological stance.

So, if he were to start the site today, would he still stick to his non-profit guns? 

“Yeah, I would absolutely do that now,” Wales told Al Jazeera. 

“One of the things that I think is really important about Wikipedia is our neutrality. And I think of Wikipedia as something like a national park or a library, it’s part of the infrastructure for learning and knowledge and sharing knowledge, so we’re very happy with the non-profit structure.” 

The non-profit structure, he said, is crucial to allowing Wikipedia to stay “incredibly mission focused … nothing ever deviates us from that”. 

There do not seem to be any plans to change how Wikipedia is funded, even as other online publications look toward paywalls to pay the bills. 

“Well, we’re far more successful than most of them are,” said Wales, chuckling. “So, it’s [Wikipedia’s model] very sustainable.” 

He added that he is not interested in the idea of paid subscriptions, focusing instead on making information free, “meaning not just free in terms of the cost, but also free license, meaning people can copy it, modify it, do whatever they want with it”. 

Wales shrugs off being at odds with everyone else: “That’s just the way we’ve always been.” 

But there is one way that Wikipedia is following the rest of the world: It plans to open it’s first office outside the US, in India, this year. 

Curiously beloved  

Think back to the last time you heard of people all over the world celebrating the fact that a website – or a publisher – marked an anniversary and you will probably come up with … not much. 

Now consider that there are over 300 events planned in more than 100 countries to celebrate a decade of Wikipedia. Not online events – actual events. For the site to be popular with users is one thing. To be celebrated, in real life, from Tulsa to Tabriz, is quite something else.

Sue Gardner, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation (which operates Wikipedia as well as other projects) told Al Jazeera that people “have complicated and strong feelings about the media that they consume” and in Wikipedia’s case, people feel that they “own” the site.

“I mean, it’s the people’s encyclopedia and so people use it, they built it, they made it,” said Gardner. 


  Frost Over the World – 10 years of Wikipedia

“I think people love it because they know that its goal, because it’s non-commercial, because it’s beholden to nobody … is to serve them.”

Plus there is the fact that each version of Wikipedia is a unique product – so the Farsi version is not a copy of the English version, making each one culturally relevant.  

Still, Gardner said, Wikipedia used to be “a bit of a guilty secret, right? You wouldn’t necessarily proclaim from the rooftops that you used it an awful lot”. But, she added, “I think that’s ebbing down these days”. 

This is not to say that Gardner does not want to improve things. 

In order to better the quality of public policy-related articles, Wikipedia has partnered with 16 American universities – such as Harvard and Georgetown – to assign such policy papers as coursework to be published on the site. This is an interesting turn, using academic papers on Wikipedia, which Wales himself has said ought never to be cited in academic research. 

Wikipedia’s transparency might also seems to appeal to readers, who, in addition to finding all tax and financial information on Wikimedia’s site, can find a record of most of Wikipedia’s own scandals and foibles laid bare on the site itself. 

Credibility challenges 

And yet despite – or perhaps, because of – its popularity, Wikipedia has its critics. Many of them are politically motivated, but not all dwell on the far fringes of discourse. 

The inaccuracies on the site have even made their mark on pop culture, with “Professor Wikipedia” – a skit mocking the site’s quickly changing “facts” getting over 1.4 million hits on Youtube – and comedian Steven Colbert calling the site “the encyclopedia where you can be an authority even if you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about”.

Even the drive to correct the site can seem a tad “bullying” as writer Jonathan Lethem opined in the January 13 issue of The Atlantic magazine.

“Why on earth should anyone have to fix and re-fix this bland-but-irregular, passive-aggressively smug, endlessly fallible, super-grudge-sensitive oatmeal-pavement of grindingly monotonous ‘resource’ that has smothered the Internet and the very notion of authentically-sourced research?” thundered Lethem.

Lethem is certainly not alone.

Andrew Keen, a media/tech critic and author of The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is killing our culture, who has squared off with Wales in civil and gentlemanly debates in the past, also has a rash of criticisms for the site. So, no, Keen will not be attending any of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary celebrations. 

“I don’t think anyone invited me,” said Keen, dryly.

“But it’s not an inconsiderable achievement,” he said. “For what it is, it’s not bad.

“Wikipedia is great if you’re media literate, but it’s not great if you’re media illiterate.”

Other than that, Keen skewered the site being inaccurate, not having a “commercial model”, being curatorialy shoddy, relying on unpaid, anonymous contributors and for reading like it is written by “an 11-year-old or an aggregation of 12-year-olds”. 

Indeed, Keen’s own profile seems to have been edited in a style that is far from standard (see screenshot taken on the day of Al Jazeera’s interview with the technology critic).

Scroll over image for enlarged view of Andrew Keen’s Wikipedia profile at the time of his interview Al Jazeera

“You can always find a few good entries, I’m sure … but the first trouble with the content is that its unreliable and spotty,” said Keen.

“The second problem is that I have no idea who is writing these things, so I’m not going to rely on it.”
Keen also has a low opinion of the free nature of the work and content on Wikipedia.

“Who gives away their labour for free, anonymously?” he asked, before quickly answering his own question. “Only schmucks would do that. Or losers.”

Academics, he said, want to attract attention to their work, and are not likely to be the chief source of Wikipedia’s content. Although, he countered himself: “It’s hard to get a job in academia.”

While Keen said he likes the Utopian idea of free knowledge for everyone, he feels that it is “unfair” to the creators and editors of the entry. “It’s increasingly hard for intellectuals and academics to earn a living, the idea of free knowledge is an insult to those workers.”

Monetising the site and taking away the anonymous nature of the posts, he said, “would shut up critics like me”.

All Wikipedia really does is “satisfy the low-end knowledge market,” which, according to Keen, has its benefits, but he would rather see people use libraries or read established encyclopedias that give “a sense of the importance of the substance” – something he argues is missing on Wikipedia.

When the issue of credibility was raised during a recent conference call with Wales and Gardner, Wales said that there is a constant effort to improve the site’s content quality and Gardner jumped in, “challenging the premise of the question” citing studies that found the number of errors in Wikipedia articles to be comparable to those in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Wales also dismissed the issue of pranks,hoaxes and deliberate misinformation as not a “huge, huge problem” and branded them “a second order of concern”.
A legitimate news source?

Despite the fact that there is also a Wikinews.org, Wikipedia is often used as a source for breaking news, which means that at times, they have the same concerns as any news organisation.

“One of the first things that happens whenever news is breaking is that an entry will become semi-protected,” Wales explained, “which means that only Wikipedians who have had an account for a while are able to access and edit the entry.”

Sure, there have been cases of corporations, such as Diebold (the controversial US voting machine manufacturer), and politicians, such as those involved in the UK expenses scandals, being busted deleting unflattering paragraphs from their pages, but user scrutiny coupled with tracking software bots tend to be an effective way of stopping such abuses. 

Still, Wales points out that as in the general, established media, mistakes happen on Wikipedia. For example, the site followed mainstream media on the January 8 shootings in Tucson, Arizona, when Wikipedia’s page, like much of the media, claimed that Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman, had died, when she had in fact survived the shooting.

Just as the media corrected its accounts, so did Wikipedia. 

How long does an error remain on Wikipedia?

So let me say that on a high profile page – such as an article about a living person, an error or act of vandalism, may not even reach the public view – particularly if a page uses a software feature called ‘flagged protections’ (not all pages have this feature) If they don’t, I would say that a page is often reverted or vandalism is reversed as quickly as under one minute – sometimes faster.

It is possible though for the error to remain for an hour to half a day, depending on the activity within the project. In less common cases, where a page is particularly new or not monitored by users, a simple error can last for a day or more.

-Jay Walsh, head of communications at the Wikimedia Foundation. 

But errors are no reason to disregard Wikipedia, argues Josh Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, who said Wikipedia’s discussion page on the shootings, showed a “nicely argued, civil” discussion on how to handle the story. 

A veteran journalist, Benton said he appreciates the fact that Wikipedia “doesn’t pay attention to the traditional structure of a news story” and that it is free from the “ego” of a news organisation as it does none of its own original reporting. 

News organisations, by contrast, agonise over how to deal with information they cannot report first hand. 

“They can assemble quite well what the state of knowledge is on a particular news content,” said Benton, adding that reporting on policy issues is what Wikipedia really does best as traditional media tend to make stories “more about the politics rather than the policy”.

“On policy issues, what news outlets tend to just provide is updates to previous stories … whereas if you wanted to know something about the health care debates in the US, the Wikipedia page was great place to start,” said Benton.

“People have this vision of Wikipedia as the wild west … but particularly on the pages that are being watched … bad stuff has a very, very short half life. It’s an extremely edited document in the end,” said Benton. 

Free is fair

The Nieman Journalism Lab has the Herculean task of helping “journalism figure out its future in the Internet age”- a time when increasingly, free content is king and news organisation struggle to find ways to monetise their online product. 

“What people do when they’re contributing to a Wikipedia page is taking the work that was produced by someone and sharing it – almost in the style of verbal communication,” said Benton. 

And that “amplification … the component of social sharing” is something he said news organisations have always relied upon. Benton is also a quick draw when it come to the duel between free and paid content.

“It really comes down to what you define as work,” said Benton, loosely citing an analogy made by Clay Shirky, an author New York University professor focusing on the commercial effects of Internet technologies.

“Once a year, everyone has someone singing happy birthday for them, for free,” said Benton.

“That doesn’t devalue the work of Justin Bieber.”

Follow D. on Twitter @ dparvaz.

Source: Al Jazeera