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Wikipedia Is 15

By Michael Castelluccio
February 1, 2016
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02_2016_TechForum_Wikipedia

On January 13, 2016, the online intellectual experiment called Wikipedia turned 15. Not only are its longevity and evolving content very impressive (5,058,654 current articles in more than 250 different languages), but even more surprising is its position as one of the “books” most often reached for on the spacious shelves of the World Wide Web. The analytical site Alexa lists Wikipedia as the seventh most visited website on the planet.

 

So how does something as mundane as an encyclopedia rise to the heights with Google, Facebook, and YouTube (the top three) while outpacing marquee sites like Twitter (10), Ebay (23), and Instagram (25)? The answer likely lies at the core of the Internet, where information is still first and social networking, entertainment, and commerce follow. Google.com fields 12 billion hits a day, and the second place Facebook gets only about half that at 6.5 billion. Amazon, which is quite an impressive department store, fields 1.5 billion hits a day, about the same as Yahoo and Baidu, the leading Chinese language search engine. And the ubiquitous Twitter attracts only 480 million hits per day. It seems if your site offers information, you start with a leg up on the party lines and emporiums. In its own space as a reference work, Wikipedia generates 520 million hits per day—about 22 million hits every hour. Makes you wonder how many others are still reaching for their Compton’s or Encyclopedia Britannicas in that same time span.

 

Actually, the idea of the encyclopedia is pretty durable. A set of works that provides a small basic library of information presented in digestible slices—articles rather than tomes—caught on for Diderot during the Enlightenment in France and continues today with a new advantage: mobility. Content today is delivered on digital pages requiring only a pipe to someone’s cloud. The entire Encyclopedia Britannica is available on your couch, the bus, or anywhere your phone is connected. The same is true for the 5+ million articles on Wikipedia.

 

The nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco that produces today’s Wikipedia began as Nupedia in 2000. The plan then was to create features written by experts that would be peer-reviewed and published for free access. The problem was the review process was so slow, reportedly only two articles were readied in the first six months. Nupedia’s cocreators, Jimmy Wales and Lawrence Sanger, decided to open up the editing process to crowdsourcing using a wiki, “a website that allows collaborative modification of its content and structure directly from the Web browser.” This Nupedia branch was dubbed Wikipedia, and it adopted the slogan, “The free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.”

 

FREE AND OPEN SOURCE

 

Not only is the information on Wikipedia free, there’s no intrusive advertising. The articles are written and continually edited and updated by volunteers. Of the 27,270,125 registered editors, there are 115,603 active editors working this week. And that’s the greatest strength of the site as well as its greatest vulnerability. Open the doors to everyone, and you’ll also get poor writers, inadequate editors, Internet trolls, vandalism, bias, and even blatant ads for products and people.

 

In 2006, Stephen Colbert decided to test what he called “Wikiality” (reality warped by misinformation repeated so often that it’s finally accepted as true). The comic told his viewers to enter incorrect information by way of edits to the site’s “elephant” article. The Wikipedia staff had to scramble to remove the edits and finally pulled the switch by closing the article, allowing only known registered editors.

 

Even though a 2005 study by the respected publication Nature claimed the science entries in Wikipedia were very close to Encyclopedia Britannica’s articles, with an average 2.92 mistakes per article in the Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia, accuracy continued to be a nagging concern for years.

 

To deal with the problem, Wikipedia includes extensive references for most articles and will sometimes warn the reader “this article needs additional citations for verification” or post a need for edits when the content seems too much like advertising. Also, Aaron Halfaker, senior research scientist at Wikimedia Foundation, has been incorporating bots and artificially intelligent programs to monitor new edits for problems. And the editing process is transparent. If you have a question about an article, you can open up the complete history of the changes that have been made to it over time.

 

Apparently, Google and Yahoo trust the content. In 2012, Google decided to add a fact box to its replies to questions—with the content coming from Wikipedia. And the daily Yahoo News Index supplements most of the stories in each issue with additional information from Wikipedia.

 

If you haven’t been on the site recently, it’s worth a look to see what’s been added in your absence. Happy Birthday.

 

Michael Castelluccio has been the Technology Editor for Strategic Finance for 21 years. His SF TECHNOTES blog is in its 19th year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


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