By Lyn Robinson

14 November 2014 - 11:17

'Wikipedia marks a major step change in how we access reference information.' Image
'Wikipedia marks a major step change in how we access reference information.' Image ©

DariuszSankowski, licensed under CC0 and adapted from the original.

In the second of our series on the 80 moments that shaped the world in the last 80 years, we turn to number 47: Wikipedia. For many people, particularly school and college students in the English-speaking world, the online reference source is now synonymous with 'encyclopaedia'. Lyn Robinson, from the Centre for Information Science at City University London, reflects on the impact of this internet phenomenon.

The history of the encyclopaedia and Wikipedia

Encyclopaedias, reference works giving short informative entries on a wide variety of subjects, have existed for 2,000 years. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History is a well-known example from Roman times, with its ten volumes covering topics from agriculture to zoology, via mathematics, medicine, painting and sculpture.

Encyclopaedias such as Britannica have been among the best-known of printed reference works, and the first stop for much information-seeking, for 200 years. Wikipedia marks a major step change in this kind of reference source.

Wikipedia was founded in 2001, by two American internet entrepreneurs, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The name is allegedly taken from ‘wiki’, a Hawaiian word meaning ‘quickly’ and the US spelling of ‘encyclopedia’. It was the first of a number of free online encyclopaedias, and the only one still in operation.

How Wikipedia is different from its predecessors

The great difference between Wikipedia, and any previous encyclopaedia, is that anyone can be an editor, or ‘Wikipedian’, and add or change material in the live encyclopaedia. ‘Talk pages’ can be used for discussion between editors. Some computer expertise is needed to deal with the rather fiddly editing functions, though changes have recently been made to make the process easier, and accessible to a wider group of editors.

The process is not quite as democratic as it might seem, since there are different categories of registered users, such as ‘administrators’ with considerable control over content, and 'contributors'. While this is an understandable response to the problems of free-for-all editing, there are concerns over control being given to this anonymous group.

There are now nearly 300 different language and dialect versions of Wikipedia, but they vary greatly in content, scope and editing policy, often focusing on topics of direct interest to speakers of the language. The English-language Wikipedia is the largest, with over 4.5 million articles. By contrast, the French version of Wikipedia has 1.5 million articles, the Slovenian 140,000, the Scots dialect version 27,000, the Maori version 7,000, and the Choctaw Native American language 15.

The general principles for Wikipedia contributions are in line with traditional encyclopaedias. Material should not be original research or personal opinion; the source of everything must be stated; and a neutral point of view is required. But there are some distinct differences. The instructions for contributors notes that this is a ‘work in progress’, that perfection is not required, and that even poor articles are welcome if they can be improved. This idea, that Wikipedia is constantly being improved by a wide group of users, makes it very different from traditional encyclopaedias, which are not published until all entries have been checked and made as good as they can be.

Why Wikipedia is so successful -- and where it falls short

Wikipedia is claimed to be the sixth most widely used website, with 500 million usages each month. It has over 70,000 active editors, creating and updating material regularly. Its material is being used even outside the system itself: Google and the iPhone Siri assistant use Wikipedia content to give short answers to questions. However, users, and particularly contributors, are a rather skewed and self-selected group: typically male (90 per cent of contributors), young, well-educated, and from the developed world (25 per cent of use is from the USA). This leads to a skewed subject coverage, since there is no overall control to maintain balance. As one critical article put it, there is very full coverage of Pokémon and of female porn stars, but little on places in Sub-Saharan Africa or on female novelists.

The nature of Wikipedia also causes an imbalance according to the novelty of the topic. Material can be added and amended much more rapidly than with a traditional encyclopaedia; when the Branson spacecraft crashed in late October 2014, for example, the Wikipedia article on Virgin Galactic was amended within hours. However this means, as Wikipedia acknowledges, that older articles will be more accurate and balanced than newer material.

As an open reference source, Wikipedia inevitably suffers vandalism (editors knowingly entering incorrect information for whatever reason). Pages known to suffer from this, typically those dealing with controversial events or prominent figures, may be locked, so that only approved editors may amend them. Also, on popular pages, visited very often, false information is quickly detected and removed. Erroneous and hoax information therefore tends to persist in more obscure areas. Wikipedia maintains a list of longer-lasting hoaxes, including pages for non-existent French philosophers and American footballers, Shropshire villages and towns in Tennessee, rivers, musicians, and TV programmes. A particularly nice example is the fictitious ‘Olimar the Wondercat’ TV programme, written so that the hoaxer’s cat could star in it. More serious are a number of long-lasting hoax medical conditions and diagnostic methods.

Perhaps more significant than rather obscure hoaxes, or short-lived falsities, are the systematic biases in coverage mentioned above. On the other hand, much Wikipedia content is contributed by experts, including research institutes and national libraries, and studies have shown that there are no more inaccuracies in scientific material on Wikipedia than in traditional encyclopaedias such as Britannica. The problem for the user is how to know which material is reliable, since it is all anonymous.

How Wikipedia is used today -- and how we might use it in the future

Because of these problems, many professors and teachers have frowned upon use of Wikipedia, but the evidence that a majority of students in Britain and North America use it for most of their assignments has forced a change in this attitude. While reliance on Wikipedia is discouraged, it is accepted as a useful initial source, and a good opportunity to learn skills of evaluating information. Its use by journalists and commentators is also controversial; since such people are often also contributors, this can lead to the same material being recycled, complete with errors and omissions.

Wikipedia is a part of the general ‘open access’ movement, which seeks to create knowledge collaboratively and to share it freely; other manifestations are open-source computer software and free access to scientific articles. All have good and bad features in common. The good is free and simple access to up-to-date and socially agreed information. The bad is lack of control and balance, lack of accountability and problems of sustainability: Wikipedia suffers from a continuing drop in the number of contributors, at the same time as its use continues to increase, and has to continually seek contributions to pay for its operations.

Regardless of its current problems, Wikipedia has made a great difference to the way many people find information, and is likely to be with us for many years to come.

In the context of its 80th anniversary, the British Council has produced -- with the help of eminent experts and the public in ten countries -- a ranking of the top 80 moments, developments, individuals, and changes of the last 80 years. Today, we reveal moments 60 to 41:

41. The invasion of Iraq in 2003, which deposed the government of Saddam Hussein
42. The invention of the digital camera
43. The Long March (October 1934 - October 1935), which began the ascent to power of Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese Communist Party
44. The creation of the European Union and the process of integration that followed
45. The global popularity of football and the football world cup
46. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean which brought devastation to many countries in Southeast Asia and beyond
47. The creation of Wikipedia in 2001
48. The assassination of US President Kennedy in 1963
49. The influence of the life and music of the American singer Michael Jackson, 1958-2009
50. The Live Aid Concerts in 1985 and 2005 for famine relief and action against poverty
51. The ‘Bretton Woods Agreement’ of 1944, which led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the system of floating foreign exchange rates
52. The move towards greater equality in many parts of the world for gay and lesbian people
53. The influence of Walt Disney (1901-1966) on cinema and popular culture
54. The Gulf War, 1990-91, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait
55. The impact of South Africa winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995
56. The growth of low-cost air travel
57. The designation of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, which began in 1972
58. The establishment of the Paralympic Games, first held in Rome in 1960
59. George Orwell’s novel 1984, published in 1949
60. The first successful cloning of a mammal from an adult sheep's cell, in 1996

What is your view? We want to know if you agree or disagree with the top 60 - 41. Which missing moment, person or innovation do you think should be in the list?

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