|“||Wikipedia is about the power of people like us to do extraordinary things. People like us write Wikipedia, one word at a time... It's proof of our collective potential to change the world.||”|
—Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia
Wikipedia has grown from a small project, Nupedia, to the world's most popular online encyclopedia. Its radical policy of allowing anonymous users to edit has had a great impact on how we perceive and use online information sources. In this chapter, we analyze a case study of the controversial Wikipedia editor "Essjay". Also, we discuss the reliability of Wikipedia articles and how the Wikipedia community deals with unwanted edits. Finally, we explore a few relevant social groups and social perceptions. We largely refrain from discussing technical aspects of Wikipedia, but they can be found on the main Wikipedia entry and elsewhere.
Wikipedia was founded in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The term Wikipedia comes partially from the Hawaiian word wiki, which means “quick” as in Wiki-Wiki bus, which emphasizes how Wikipedia can be a quick source of information.
Wikipedia has five rules, also known as the Five Pillars. Out of those, the third pillar, "Wikipedia has a neutral point of view (NPV)," is most important and debated. It is, however, a common practice to write in the popular perspective. There are also unofficial guidelines for scientists wishing to contribute to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is an example of the Open-Source Movement applying beyond software and extended to a collaborative encyclopedia.
Case Study: Essjay, Wikipedia Professor
The Wikipedia editor Essjay raised many questions on February 28, 2007, when it was revealed that he used a fake identity to make edits to approximately 20,000 articles. He claimed to be a professor of religion and spent up to 14 hours a day editing Wikipedia as a Wikipedia bureaucrat. Essjay said that he hid his identity because "he feared personal retribution from those he had ruled against online." Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia co-founder, accepted Essjay's apology but asked Essjay to "resign his position of trust within the community." Also see the WikiNews article.
Don't we have an equal voice?
The Essjay case showed that someone with higher credentials had greater authority on Wikipedia. But how much should we trust information from the "experts"? If the community valued accuracy of information over someone's credentials, Essjay's fabricated credentials would have been irrelevant in the editing decisions.
Whether Essjay’s edits were accurate or not, he was able to gain trust through his fabricated identity. The converse could be true; an expert without credentials can be disregarded. This may lead to a situation in which more users are fabricating identities to gain the community’s trust. In a generalized lesson, Essjay's case demonstrates the weight of "expert opinions" regardless of whether they are actually accurate or not.
Quality of Articles
|“||Overall, writing is the Achilles' heel of Wikipedia. Committees rarely write well, and Wikipedia entries often have a choppy quality that results from the stringing together of sentences or paragraphs written by different people.||”|
—Roy Rosenzweig, historian
Although the incoherence resulting from multiple editors remains an issue, more efforts have been "devoted to coordination and administration," and "Talk pages" are being utilized to make strategic plans. However, the usefulness of Wikipedia for academic research is still debated. A study found Wikipedia's science articles to be almost as accurate as those of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Britannica challenged the study results, calling them "fatally flawed." Science scholars generally agree that the information is accurate. But many humanities scholars criticize Wikipedia for its open access and questionable quality of entries.
In another study to "compare the accuracy and thoroughness of Wikipedia entries to those of well-respected print reference sources," eight of nine Wikipedia entries showed inaccuracies and two of them contained "major flaws." When compared to reputable history sources, the sampled articles demonstrated 80% accuracy. Santana and Wood point out that a "lack of transparency [hidden identities of contributors] jeopardizes the validity of the information."
In another instance, the Australian Department of Defense prevented its employees from making any Wikipedia edits after discovering that over 5000 edits originated from their own institution. The Australian DOD did not want these edits to be mistaken as official government statements. Politicians and their staff have also edited Wikipedia in the past.
"Vandalism" is very prominent in Wikipedia, as it is an open-access encyclopedia. In a study published on vandalism survival, 25 out of 100 random articles were vandalized. The Counter-Vandalism Unit and automated bots have been created to counteract "vandalism."
Viegas et al. found that the median time to revert a "mass deletion" of a page was 2.9 minutes. The community is actively fighting against "vandalism" while controversial edits are resolved by a popular consensus.
One can draw a general lesson: a technology intended to improve the current system sometimes gets misused or abused. A similar case can be seen from hand sanitizers in the popular hygiene chapter. Thus, it is important to anticipate the potential misuse and take measures to prevent it.
Pertinent Social Groups
Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopaedia Britannica, condems the way Google’s search algorithm returns Wikipedia articles amongst its top search results:
|“||If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google I would be very [displeased] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia. Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?||”|
To compete against Wikipedia, Britannica announced in early 2009 Web site changes to emulate Wikipedia's format but with some distinctions including:
- Official Britannica editors would need to screen modifications by unofficial contributors before the Britannica Web site would update
- Unofficial contributors would need to provide identifying information before they could participate.
Britannica relied only on experts to write articles before. Britannica's new approach is to follow Wikipedia's open-editing model while still distinguishing itself as an expert-based online encyclopedia. It is not unusual to see two different technologies at the social interface converging to resemble one another through a competition.
Middlebury College History Department
This raises a question of whether university-level researchers should use Wikipedia as a cited information source. Wikipedia does provide easily accessible resources, but university-level researchers should rely on peer-reviewed sources rather than encyclopedia-level sources such as Wikipedia. Also, research indicates that college students may be more adept at judging the reliability of Wikipedia than this episode may suggest.
A study indicated that librarians from the National Library Board of Singapore found Wikipedia helpful; articles contained plenty of references leading to more in-depth research and well-documented aspects of Eastern culture..
In an editorial on the American Library Association Web site, Travis Bonnet opines that Wikipedia and libraries can co-exist. He holds a neutral view on Wikipedia,
|“||I have no sweeping declaration to make in dismay or in praise of Wikipedia.||”|
Thus, librarians generally do not see Wikipedia as dangerous to their livelihood but rather as an opportunity to enhance research experiences.
Wikipedia has a hierarchy of users, Wikipedians, organized according to increasing rank as: normal users, Administrators, Bureaucrats, and Stewards. A candidate is evaluated and elected on the quality and quantity of his/her edits, and noteworthy users may receive barnstars. Wikipedians hold a common goal of revealing as much information for as many people as possible.
|“||‘Are you nuts? Jimbo [Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia], splash some water in your eyes and read that article again. It took less than five minutes for the vandalism to be removed, and that's damn impressive. Instead of being proud of your users you instead take it as an opportunity to push for flagged revisions.’||”|
Thus, one might conclude that Wikipedians consider themselves to be a responsible group of individuals who prefer self-governance over top-down interference. They strategically perform updates and prevent “vandalism.”
|“||The 'experts' - whether they're top-tier physicists or movie-studio heads - don't have a monopoly on the creation or distribution of information anymore. The crowd, through technology that's been available for little more than a decade, has broken that monopoly, transforming everything from entertainment to cancer research.||”|
—Jeff Howe, wired writer
As Howe expresses, Wikipedia led to expert disintermediation. Experts hold mixed opinions on the academic merits of Wikipedia. Lack of expert contributions may be attributed to a "free-for-all" structure, in which professors and experts are not guaranteed higher priority. In a survey of more than 1,000 scientific authors, while over 70% heard of Wikipedia, less than 10% actually contributed to editing articles. Nevertheless, some experts are making efforts to contribute with the slogan, "If you can't beat the Wikipedians, join 'em."
Social Perception: Appropriate Uses
In a study involving high-tech professionals, participants "used and shared information from Wikipedia less frequently for job duties but in general considered Wikipedia a credible source." Although Wikipedia is not yet synonymous with "reliability" in professional life, it may become acceptable to share Wikipedia articles with co-workers or clients if it becomes a social norm.
Another study evaluated Wikipedia as a source of health information and showed that Wikipedia was visited more than MedLinePlus, a government-provided resource for health information. The authors considered Wikipedia a "prominent" source of online health information. However, the study did not evaluate the accuracy of Wikipedia articles.
Wikipedia harnesses efforts from myriad users to produce an easily accessible information source. Wikipedians incorporate self-governing mechanisms to regulate and refine the information; these mechanisms have sometimes failed, leading to controversies. Wikipedia has impacted existing social groups such as academics and traditional encyclopedias while creating new social groups such as Wikipedians. Wikipedia provides lessons on "the social interface of technology" involving misuses of technology, the displacement and formation of social groups, and experts and the common populace.
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