Wikipedia just passed its 15th birthday. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what online information and online research were like before it burst on the scene. It is one of the first and by far the largest ventures in user-written content.
It is not, I repeat, not an authoritative source of information suitable for student papers or other serious research—unless perhaps it is the only available source. But that’s not because Wikipedia is created by volunteers instead of recognized experts. It’s because it’s an encyclopedia.
Encyclopedias and research
You probably learned to use encyclopedias for papers you wrote in third or fourth grade. By the time you got to high school, your teachers started insisting that you not use encyclopedia articles for your papers. Why? Because they wanted you to use more specialized books. If you went to college, you were also using journal articles.
In the hierarchy of sources, encyclopedias are called tertiary sources. They summarize information found in secondary sources (books, articles, etc.), although authors for really authoritative encyclopedias might also draw on their knowledge of primary sources.
Wikipedia has some important advantages over traditional encyclopedias, not the least of which is how quickly articles can be written and revised. What’s in the news today will be in Wikipedia tomorrow.
Also, an extensive article in a traditional encyclopedia on some aspect of, say, chemistry might refer briefly to some arcane technique. Before Wikipedia, anyone wanting to learn more had to hunt through the professional literature. Now, a search engine will take you to a very specialized Wikipedia article that will have references to professional literature if you need it.
A short history of Wikipedia
Wikipedia grew out of a project started by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger in 1999. It barely resembles what either of them had in mind. It is not only the world’s largest encyclopedia (measured in the sheer number of articles), but also probably the greatest voluntary collaboration for any purpose.
Wales was a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the late 1980s when he became interested in fantasy games on the Internet, specifically something called MUD (for Multi-User Dungeon), which was based on Dungeons & Dragons.
MUD was not so much a game as a system by which masses of players could collaborate in creating online fantasy worlds.
Wales also participated in email discussion groups and, in 1989, started the Ayn Rand Philosophy Discussion List. He wanted an academic philosophical discussion.
What he got, like too many other similar groups, was a number of people who conducted flame wars. He had to adopt a careful style of moderation that encouraged open discussion but at least attempted to shut down flaming.
As the Worldwide Web grew, entrepreneurs began to develop portals to help people find what they were looking for. In the mid 1990s, most of the work went toward building directories, of which Yahoo was the largest.
Wales co-founded one called Bomis in 1996. Yahoo enlisted a mass of surfers to discover and classify useful sites. Bomis used a more democratic approach to classification called a web ring, a set of sites linked together by topic enabling surfers to get from any site to related sites. Netscape, however, used web rings to become a larger and more successful rival to Yahoo.
In 1999 Wales began to think of an online encyclopedia built, like MUD and web rings, with volunteer workers. He named it Nupedia.org and hired Larry Sanger as its editor in chief. Sanger, then a doctoral student in philosophy, had been active in Wales’ Ayn Rand email list.
Wales intended that Nupedia would be an online alternative to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its content would be available for free on the Internet and that anyone could participate in writing it, but he hired Sanger for his academic credentials.
Sanger decided that, like every other encyclopedia, Nupedia would assign expert writers and subject submissions to strict peer review. They thought it would grow much faster than it did.
Meanwhile, Ward Cunningham had launched the first “wiki” (Hawaiian for “quick”) in 1995. It allowed multiple users to edit pages, hyperlink them, and track changes. When Sanger learned about wikis, he realized that it could break the bottleneck caused by his editorial structure.
Wales and Sanger created a Nupedia wiki on January 10, 2001 with the intention that volunteers would write entries and submit them for review. Most of the volunteers, however, had no interest in the process. Sanger decided to start a new project, called Wikipedia, which he didn’t take very seriously.
He announced it on the Nupedia discussion list on January 15, 2001 and challenged people to take a few minutes and contribute a little article. By the end of the month, Wikipedia had 17 articles of at least 200 words. By the end of February, it had 150, and by the end of 2001 about 15,000 articles contributed by about 350 volunteers, or “Wikipedians.”
In the interest of openness, Sanger declined the title “editor in chief” in favor of “chief organizer,” which had good and bad consequences. He got involved in an “edit war” with one of the volunteers and belatedly tried to assert the authority of editor in chief. After a year on the job, he quit.
As of September 2015, Wikipedia boasted more than 38,000,000 articles by about 70,000 contributors in 290 languages. Collectively volunteers contribute thousands of articles and tens of thousands of edits to existing articles every day, about 10 edits every second. The English Wikipedia alone has more than 5 million entries averages 800 new articles every day.
The community has developed policies and guidelines, including a manual of style, but probably only the most active users have studied them.
Wikipedia, then, operates not on the basis of recognized authority but by the wisdom of the crowd. Anyone can write on any subject, and anyone can edit what is already there. The anarchic creative process potentially creates two major problems.
First, the community decides what is true and accurate, not recognized experts. Without adequate peer review, shoddy and inaccurate articles are inevitable.
Second, if anyone can edit, then there is nothing to prevent malicious changes and deliberate introduction of rumor and innuendo disguised as fact.
The community is large enough, however, and vigilant enough that on the whole the major articles are probably as accurate as they would be under stricter peer review. At least a critical mass of Wikipedia contributors know how to conduct serious research.
Inadequate articles are clearly labeled as such, with requests for volunteers to fix such specific deficiencies as improper documentation.
The guidelines, however, lead to some odd quirks. Philip Roth noticed a serious misstatement in the Wikipedia article about his novel The Human Stain. When he contacted Wikipedia to get it corrected, he was told that he was not a credible source!
The Wikipedia Administrator wrote, “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.” I suppose his letter to the New Yorker counts as a secondary source.
Wikipedia comes in very handy for low-level research like fact checking or satisfying curiosity. I wouldn’t be surprised if teachers show today’s school children how to use Wikipedia the same way my teachers showed us how to use World Book.
And they will outgrow it the same way we outgrew World Book. They will also need to learn to view Wikipedia with all due skepticism if the article’s subject is at all controversial or related to subjects like popular culture where there are no acknowledged scholars and where the articles’ subjects can’t get mistakes corrected.
Screen shots taken the evening of February 3, 2016.