Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has been the subject of disdain for many an educator, but most internet connoisseurs now acknowledge the encyclopedia site as an authoritative and indispensable resource. As the largest and most comprehensive compilation of free knowledge in the world, it is the first of its kind. However, some are predicting that the golden age of the Wikiverse may be coming to a close due to recent waves of controversy.
The most common criticism of Wikipedia is that its volunteer network of editors, or “admins,” provides biased or inaccurate information because contributors do not necessarily have to be experts in any given field. This critique may stem from a lack of understanding about the sophisticated bureaucracy adhered to by the carefully-vetted admins, as well as about the processes governing the addition of new content, which have become increasingly complex in response to cases of vandalism on various pages—possibly to the point of discouraging new editors. A 2005 study published in Nature compared Wikipedia articles on various scientific subjects with corresponding entries in Encyclopaedia Britannica and found only a slight difference in the average number per article of misleading statements, mistakes or omissions—nearly three for Britannica and about four for Wikipedia. The journal concluded that this “ expert-led investigation carried out by Nature—the first to use peer review to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science “suggests that such high-profile examples . . . are the exception rather than the rule.”
Unfortunately, such results do not seem to be able to outweigh the various controversies in Wikipedia’s past, such as some of 2005’s well-known cases of internet vandalism. Since then, there have been others, including a recent scandal that exposed a group of fake accounts, known as “sockpuppets,” designed to produce paid promotional articles as part of the largest coordinated scheme that Wikipedia has uncovered. The sockpuppets spread the efforts on behalf of small-time products and companies across several user accounts. Admins traced a network of hundreds of accounts back to a single user who was active beginning in November of 2008. The network was tied to a company called Wiki-PR, which claimed that it merely helps clients guarantee accuracy for their Wikipedia pages; however, Wikimedia Foundation lawyers were not buying it, and after further investigation issued a cease and desist order to the company’s CEO. While the sockpuppet investigation may demonstrate the dedication and skill of Wikipedia admins in hunting down the nefarious accounts that edit promotional articles, it also may overshadow the other, possibly more threatening, problems faced by Wikipedia, such as the homogeneity of editors that could result in homogenous new content. Will Oremus at Slate suggests that the site may benefit from paid editing if that will bring on more editors of different backgrounds and diverse interests.
The internet will be keeping an eye on Wikipedia as they continue to deal with the sockpuppet ring. They responded to the 2005 study by posting progress of their site corrections; will Wikipedia be making changes to daily operations in order to entice a larger number of diverse editors? The Wikiverse may have another ingenious solution up its sleeve yet.
Did You Know?
When you ask Siri or Google Now a question, the answer it gives comes from Wikipedia. Also known as “the encyclopedia anyone can edit,” the site’s content is created by a community of users called Wikipedians. A recent study commissioned by the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia’s financial and logistical support, pointed to the fact of Wikipedia’s declining number of new editors. The editors, who follow somewhat arcane procedures to edit articles, tend to be seasoned editors and not newcomers. And they are approximately 90 percent male. Critics say unless the site can attract new editors, the quality of the articles will decline. This is correlated with the lack of diversity in the topics of the articles. For example, 84 percent of articles referring to a location were in Europe or North America, and Antarctica is the subject of more articles than any nation in Africa or South America. The study points to the new editing rules that have been made to maintain the quality of the articles following the incidences of vandalism and outright hoax articles in 2006. However, critics say these rules are also keeping newcomers away.
Wikipedia has made some changes to its website in response to these findings, such as enabling a text edit format for editing articles and adding a “Thank” feature to give positive feedback to contributors. But it remains to be seen if and how Wikipedia can reverse the declining trend of new editors.