The Wonderful World of Wikipedia

Middle of February 2008

To 99% of the population, Wikipedia has become wallpaper, a free source of information so useful and ubiquitous that it’s uninteresting. To academicians, however, the idea of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is anathema. It sounds like a recipe for misinformation and opinion dressed as facts. They worry about the blind leading the blind.

This criticism was always overdone. Head to head comparisons show that Wikipedia is marginally less accurate and reliable than Microsoft’s Encarta and Britannica Online but the difference is unlikely to be noticeable to the average user. Occasionally a journalist has “salted” Wikipedia with errors or falsehoods and complained that they persist. But that’s only true if the problems are in rarely-visited byways; on average a deliberate error lasts just a day. The truth is that several thousand dedicated Wikipedians and hundreds of thousands of occasional editors keep the resource remarkably free of major problems.

The worst hotspots occur where you might imagine, in articles that deal with politics or contentious social issues like abortion. A more subtle and insidious form of bias comes from corporations or individuals editing articles out of self-interest, financial or personal. To deal with this, the architects can lock down articles on contentious issues or require the editors to reveal themselves and disclose conflict of interest. In many technical and esoteric fields, the quality is very high. I’ve found only a few minor errors in the hundred or so astronomy articles that I’ve read. After all who would vandalize an article on stellar nucleosynthesis, even if they knew how? Another complaint concerns the proportionality and balance of a resource where the article on Brittany Spears is two-thirds of the length of the article on Albert Einstein. So what? If the information on Einstein is correct, why should we cavil at inclusion of the numbing details of Brittany’s life, as long as they’re also accurate.

Wikipedia has become so ubiquitous as a one-stop shop for information that it’s turned the 800-pound gorilla called Google into its tame poodle. I entered 100 words or phrases that a student might use in their studies, ranging from “Napoleon” to “subjunctive” to “magnetic field,” and Wikipedia was only outside the top three results 10% of the time. This extraordinary result means that the giant search engines have largely become proxy search tools for the Wikipedia web site. It also points to Wikipedia’s Achilles heel: the lack of any consistent hierarchy for the information. Articles are assigned to categories with as many as 22 levels, but a third of the articles aren’t categorized, and classifiers can’t keep up with the rapid growth of the resource.

Articles on major topics were written years ago, so time serves to hone the information and weed out the diminishing number of errors. Wikipedia is growing laterally. Most of the new articles populate a long tail of obscure topics and obscure people. The fact that few people will care about such articles is beside the point; they’re all there in one web location and nobody will every have to create that information again. The other thing Wikipedia has going for it is currency. News is updated almost instantly and journalists have become agitated at this competition from rank amateurs. Articles on major topics also get “churned” to ensure currency, a process that’s impossible in the standard model of publishing.

Wikipedia is also becoming less monotone. Foreign language articles are being added faster than articles in English, and 250 languages are represented. In addition to the 2.2 million articles, the resource has over a million images and many useful maps, charts and tables. Unknown to most users, there is an effort to create structured data tables on many topics, so that information can be retrieved by a structured query akin to natural language. This is a step in the direction of the semantic web envisaged by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the Internet.

Nobody foresaw the spontaneous creation of such a wonderful free resource in a context where the web was being increasingly dominated by commerce. The sense of community embodied by Wikipedia is inspiring, and that alone is enough to forgive its faults. Like a living entity, Wikipedia will continue to grow and adapt and evolve in surprising ways.

Comments are closed.