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Posts Tagged ‘Wikipedia’

Wikipedia has become the “first draft of history.” Just take a look at how the Wikipedia community handled the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. By the end of the first day of the Wikipedia article’s life, it had been edited more than 360 times, by 70 different editors referring to 28 separate sources from news outlets around the web. Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing mentality combined with its easy-to-use, accessible platform to generate an aggregation of event details from multiple sources (such as NY Times, Reuters, and Times of India) in a number of different languages and locations. Wikipedia is especially effective as a breaking news source because articles can be instantaneously created and rapidly updated by anyone (you don’t have to be a reporter in the newsroom!) In fact, the contributors to breaking news articles often interact online as if they are in a virtual newsroom. Also, the list of links at the bottom of the page points readers to more resources regarding specific aspects of the event or different viewpoints taken.  

Let’s face it. When an event is unfolding, people would rather have information that isn’t 100% reliable rather than no information at all. And if an event is important enough, you can be sure that incorrect information will be fixed by the time you refresh your screen. That’s because a crowd of contributors (some of which might band together as a community) quickly assemble during crisis events. As we talked about in class last week, humans are motivated to DO something during a crisis rather than sit around passively absorbing information from other sources. In case you really don’t trust early contributors, Wikipedia released an optional feature last fall (WikiTrust) that color codes every word of the encyclopedia based on the reliability of its author and the length of time it has lasted in the article.

But are the community’s new policies and aggressive management of the site turning off existing members and making it more and more difficult for new members to join? A recent study found that during the first three months of 2009, the English-language version of Wikipedia lost 49,000 editors, compared with a loss of about 4,900 during the same period in 2008. Jimmy Wales says this is not so. Perhaps this is a case of crowd fatigue- thoughts? I’m a little bit surprised that there is not very much information on the West Virginia mining explosion that happened yesterday. While the accident is now mentioned in here and here, it has not been extensively covered by Wikipedia editors as the events unfold. Could it be that the majority of the Wikipedia community lives in large cities and feel more connected to local breaking news?

Last June, Google News began monitoring Wikipedia articles and using them on their site. This was a pivotal change. Finally, the most powerful media company in the world was recognizing Wikipedia’s increasing popularity as a reliable breaking news source. The Huffington Post also recognizes Wikipedia’s importance- it dedicates an entire page to breaking news about Wikipedia. And did you know that there is now a WikiReader? For $99, this gadget allows users to browse all of Wikipedia offline and on-the-go. Why not carry around breaking news in your pocket? Read a review here!

Finally, below is a video that can help you use Wikipedia as a news source by making use of Wikipedia’s watchlist function. This isn’t the most exciting video, but stick with it. It’s a good tutorial if you don’t already have a lot of experience on the editing side of Wikipedia!

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In 1962, Charles Van Doren, who later became a senior editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, said “The ideal encyclopedia should be radical. It should stop being safe.”

Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit that operates Wikipedia), explains that Wikipedia indeed began with the following radical idea: “imagine a world in which every person on the planet is giving free access to the sum of human knowledge.”  The goal of the Wikimedia Foundation is to get a free encyclopedia to every person on the planet. Wales wants to empower people everywhere to make good decisions that can fight evils like poverty. So far, Wikipedia is doing a pretty good job reaching out to people across the globe- only 1/3 of the site’s traffic is to its English language version.  Can you believe that a global site used millions of times per day only costs the Wikimedia Foundation a few thousand dollars per month? Can you believe that all of Wikipedia’s system administrators and editors are volunteers? And ultimately, can you believe what you read on Wikipedia?

First of all, let’s consider who is using Wikipedia and why they like it. Since Wikipedia is especially popular amongst the college-aged, well-educated population looking for a convenient place to get information (example: ME), I’m going to draw from my own daily experiences. I mostly use Wikipedia as a quick reference (I glance at the first paragraph and then skim a few sections of the article) or a jumping off point/roadmap for further, more in-depth online research on a topic. Isn’t this the same way that you would use a published encyclopedia? You don’t expect to be an expert after simply reading an encyclopedia article, but you do feel more prepared to continue your research and connect the dots between sources that zero in on particular aspects of your topic. Today, this aerial view is free and at our fingertips (both literally and figuratively.) Sure, Wikipedia is not perfect (with every plausible promise and effective tool comes that acceptable bargain), but in trusting what you read in its articles, you are surely gain more than you lose.

The popularity of Wikipedia proves the power of peer production as an industrial model. Wikipedia champions the idea that amateurs can have as much to contribute as professionals. Who cares if an editor doesn’t have his or her Master’s degree in a relevant field? If someone is passionate enough to contribute to the knowledge surrounding a certain topic, then it is highly likely that that person will strive to be a reliable source. And even when this logic doesn’t hold true, there are enough passionate, reliable experts who can edit misinformation out.

And when all else fails, we have Wales, who realizes that we rely on Wikipedia is as a trusted, convenient source of information. It’s comforting to know that he is willing to curb Wikipedia’s open-door policy to meet our high standards of content quality. “We have really become part of the infrastructure of how people get information. There is a serious responsibility we have,” says Wales. Clearly, Wikipedia’s new flagging system reflects the recognition of that responsibility that comes with Wikipedia’s exceptional influence on information-seekers. From the beginning, Wales has avoided specifying principles for Wikipedia. Instead, he prefers that it’s rules evolve in response to real users’ needs. Overly broad principles, like “blogs are not valid sources,” would take away from knowledge summation and information sharing, since many blogs can provide editors with information worthy of being aggregated into Wikipedia articles. How can Wales separate the articles that are actually encyclopedic from the ones which aren’t (example: obscure celebrities.) The Long Tail tells us that in fact every niche (and article) has its followers.  Unlike published encyclopedias, Wikipedia is not paper. Its editors are not constrained by special limits. It’s okay for them to write about every topic imaginable. Wikipedia is one of those distributive forces that make the Long Tail possible!

Maybe Wikipedia is even becoming wary of untrustworthy sources on its own.  Ed Chi found that the changes made by experienced editors were more likely to stay up on the site, whereas one-time editors had a much higher chance of having their edits reversed. He concluded that there is “growing resistance from the Wikipedia community to new content, especially when edits come from occasional editors.” I don’t think this is a bad trend. If you are one of those passionate people (mentioned above) who want to contribute to the public’s knowledge, then you will be willing to prove yourself before being accepted. Sure, you don’t need a Master’s degree, but you do need to build some sort of credibility before becoming an influencer.

As further proof of the validity of Wikipedia, check out Nature’s expert-led investigation, which used peer reviews to compare Wikipedia and Britannica’s coverage of science. The study’s results suggest that high-profile, vandalism scandals (like the Seigenthaler situation) are the “exception rather than the rule.” Other users have put Wikipedia’s trustworthiness to their own tests and come up with less positive results. This is not all that surprising. Of course Wikipedia is more susceptible to inaccuracies and bias then traditional published encyclopedias. But just as someone researching the war in Iraq would not want to rely solely on published encyclopedia articles, he or she would not want to assume the validity and the accuracy of every fact in Wikipedia’s 33-page “War in Iraq” article. Look for flags, check the source of your Wikipedia information, and verify facts with other sources! In a day and age when it is possible to surround ourselves with the news that we want, we should never believe everything that we see.

Check out this great article on why Wikipedia should be trusted as a breaking news source as well as an encyclopedia. I totally agree that Wikipedia is too often held to higher standards than traditional media. Like this article says, Wikipedia is an aggregator of all the social media news sources that we check (and believe) on a daily basis.  If we believe one article posted on a friend’s Twitter feed, why wouldn’t we trust an aggregation of articles that take multiple perspectives on a news event?

And finally, an afterthought: Why is it that only 13% of Wikipedia contributors are women? Why are men dominating this landscape so much? In class, we discussed that blogging is also a male-dominated landscape (aside from Mommy Blogs.) Blogging seems more opinion-oriented, while contributing to Wikipedia involves having confidence in your knowledge and its value. Could it be that women don’t think their own opinions and knowledge are worth sharing? The psychology side of me can’t help but ponder the underlying gender issues in these statistics.

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