The best source of knowledge or “broken beyond repair”? PC Authority uncovers how the net’s highly controversial encyclopedia really works.Some call it a miracle of the information age. Lauded by science journals, wealthy tycoons, national newspapers and government ministers, in the space of six years Wikipedia has become one of the most widely consulted knowledge resources in the world. Leapfrogging rivals such as Britannica, it has become the online encyclopedia. The fact that it isn’t a professional endeavour but the product of thousands of volunteers only makes this all the more amazing.
Yet, Wikipedia doesn’t earn universal admiration. It’s been described as a cult; a faith-based encyclopedia; a glorified repository for trivia. Indeed, there’s evidence of a Wiki-backlash. In February, an influential contributor – or Wikipedian as they’re known – was caught lying about his academic credentials. Then in April, one of the site’s founders, Larry Sanger, described Wikipedia as “broken beyond repair”, listing problems ranging from “serious management problems, to an often dysfunctional community, to frequently unreliable content”. With scandals in its history and criticism rising, Wikipedia’s Utopian veneer is fading.
So what’s the truth? Even the project’s guiding father, Jimmy Wales, describes it as “a work in progress” with “mistakes that haven’t been caught yet”. Yet even Wikipedia’s critics have to admire the breadth of content (1.8 million plus articles in the English language and counting) and admit that at least parts of it are excellent. And would Sanger have been so critical were he not pushing Citizendium, his spin on the same idea?
Time for some answers. We’re going to examine how articles in Wikipedia are constructed, how the facts are checked and how vandalism is prevented. We’ll investigate the community and ask whether these people can be trusted. We’re even going to put the site to the test. Whatever you think about Wikipedia, prepare to change your mind.
How Wikipedia works
To get a handle on what makes Wikipedia unique, consider how things work on a more traditional encyclopedia – MSN Encarta. Throughout the year, the site’s expert editorial team lists articles that should be included and those that need reworking. They schedule ahead, read around and then commission academics and experts in the relevant fields. The resulting drafts will be edited and scrupulously fact-checked, looking for signs of bias or omission. Before it goes online, the article will be signed off by everyone involved. It’s slow and bureaucratic, but, to a degree, it guarantees quality, accuracy and reliability.
On Wikipedia, the process is very different. Anyone can go online and edit anything. Spot a mistake? Well, just click on the edit link at the top of every article, make the changes, then save to the live encyclopedia. And if there isn’t an article already? Just make one. It’s not a top-down project such as Encarta, but a bottom-up, functioning anarchy.
Still, as experienced Wikipedians will know, the trick isn’t making changes, it’s keeping them. Up to 5000 new pages are deleted every day, most because they’re silly experiments or outright vandalism. Some will be removed immediately by the privileged users known as Admins. Others will be nominated on the Wikipedia: Articles for Deletion page. If a consensus emerges that the entry doesn’t meet Wikipedia’s criteria for inclusion, or that it merely extends another piece, it can be deleted or merged as necessary.
Most edits will come under similar scrutiny. Even though there’s no formal peer review process, your work is likely to be checked by other editors, who may post comments on an article’s talk page, rework your edit, or simply revert the page to the state it was in before you arrived. Hard-core Wikipedians will have a long watchlist of articles they take special interest in, and some will cruise the “Recent Changes” page. Experienced Wikipedians may have custom tools that alert them to particular changes.