Arguably the most popular online information source today, with some six million articles in 250 odd languages, Wikipedia is a prime example of how the mediums for obtaining information are increasingly becoming crowdsourced. Whether it be Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign or it be the Emperor Penguin’s mating habits, anything and everything you want to know is there.
So what’s the problem? It’s a product of crowdsourcing - An “encyclopedia” in which articles can be written, edited and re-edited by anyone who has an internet connection and some free time, how credible can that be? Can one use Wikipedia for school projects, can one cite Wikipedia in journals, can one say with conviction – It’s correct because Wikipedia says so…
The Wikipedia Model
Wikipedia is based on the concept of a wiki – a website that lets users add and change content even if they are not registered. Anyone who visits the site can edit it and this is why it has been able to grow to such a phenomenal size.
So can I just put up an article about my friend on Wikipedia, or cook up some story about an incident that took place in my city and add it in a Wikipedia article? There are editorial control and oversight mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening. Yes, one can put up an article on any odd topic one wants to, maybe about the school teacher one hates or one’s pet Labrador. But such articles are bound to be deleted hours within their creation. There are teams of volunteer editors who look out for bad articles, vandalism and biased editing, and ensure that such content is removed as soon as possible from the site.
So who gets to be the Wikipedia cop, deciding what should be in and what should be out? The Wikipedia community is quite self organizing, and any user can take up administrative and editorial responsibilities subject to approval from other members of the Wikipedia community. All editorial disputes are resolved through consensus and not a majority vote.
Wikipedia ensures that all articles on the site adhere to the principles of Neutrality of Viewpoint and Verifiability of Information. Thus, no original research or findings can be put up as information on Wikipedia. Only information that can be verified from third party sources can be put up.
Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow
Wikipedia’s founder Larry Sanger defines Wikipedia’s primary editorial control mechanism through this quirky statement. The sheer volume of editors maintaining a watch over the articles ensures the quality of content on Wikipedia. It’s hardly a matter of minutes that a harmful edit will be noticed by an editor and corrective action will be taken.
Even with these practices in place, Wikipedia cannot always ensure that all is correct on the site. On March 2, 2007, MSNBC reported that Hillary Clinton’s Wikipedia biography incorrectly listed her as having been the valedictorian of her class in Wellesley College. This wrong information had not been removed from the Clinton article for a period of around 20 months in 2005 and 2006.
Wikipedia is increasingly being used for political mudslinging in the U.S.
Can one trust what’s on a Wikipedia article?
Minor errors would go unnoticed on quite a few articles; a few articles will give the readers just one side of the story, limiting opposing views to a few lines at the bottom; and there will be articles that will be grossly incomplete. So should we still trust Wikipedia, should it be our first stop to look for an answer to any query we have?
Wikipedia, like any other crowdsourced body of work, can never have the final say on any subject. Yes, they did cite Wikipedia in the U.S. Federal Courts, but only as supporting information. Reliability of information, however much we argue, will always be defined by whether the source can be held accountable for the information it gives. An article edited and re-edited by hundreds of people and which can be changed for better or for worse any time, does not become a fully reliable source of information just because it’s read by a million people of this planet.
On the other hand, Wikipedia cannot be written off just because it’s user generated content. In today’s information hungry world, Wikipedia provides a fast and easy way to get the facts that one wants. Wikipedia is one of the best first stops when looking for information, but it surely cannot be the last. With Wikipedia’s strict policy of only putting up information that is verifiable, there are numerous reference links given at the bottom of each article. Read up the entry on Wikipedia, but don’t end your search there. Check up the references cited, google (or yahoo, as you prefer) what you are researching on, read up and only then consider that you have read up enough for that school project on the European Renaissance.