Question: Should we trust Wikipedia or an expert-led encyclopedia more? How could Wikipedia be better set-up to better provide accuracy? Should it be open to everyone or just verified “experts”?
As the “new media guy” at my office, I sometimes get made fun of for my advocacy of Wikipedia. Often, as I try to extol the quality of information that emerges from online collaboration, I realize that I must come across just like Michael Scott does in that clip.
I suppose the good news is that after reading Clay Shirky’s Here comes Everybody, I now feel much better prepared to explain exactly why WIkipedia can be as trustworthy a source of information as any expert-led encyclopedia. The primary reason for Wikipedia’s quality is this: When new social tools succeed in fostering robust communities of people who care, all of us is as good – or better- as only some of us (even if those “some” are experts).
But why exactly does this work? Why are legions of Internet-connected people motivated to contribute information for no absolutely nothing in return? Shriky gives us three reasons:
- Believe it or not, there are a lot of people out there that enjoy exercising some of their “unused mental capacities.” (Just like Shirky did with the “Koch Snowflake” entry.)
- Vanity. Many Wikipedia contributors are driven by the satisfaction of knowing that they’re contributing to an important source of the world’s knowledge.
- People often just want to do a “good thing.”
And that’s exactly why Wikipedia should continue to be open to everybody. Not only does the Wikipedia community work to create quality information through productive collaboration, but it’s also much more up to date and diverse than what you’ll find in any traditional encyclopedia. Wikipedia has a whole page on TOAST, for crying out loud. Try finding something like that in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
While I’ll continue to be an advocate for Wikipedia, it doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the the platform’s faults. The system isn’t perfect. I’ll never forget the day my friend sent me the URL to Wikipedia’s “Iceland” page, only to see that some vandal had deleted the page and replaced it with the words, “ICELAND GOT OWNED BY GREENLAND MOTHERFUCKERS!” However, as Shirky explains, one of the reasons Wikipedia isn’t destroyed by the few that break the rules is that it’s much easier to erase vandalism than it is to create it, and most often, erroneous or ridiculous information gets fixed by the community very quickly.
I’ll end my post by offering just one piece of advice to the Wikipedia Gods on how they can improve the fairness and accuracy of their product even more. As Chris Wilson noted in Slate , Wikipedia and other social media sites like Digg aren’t truly democratic. Instead, on those sites, “A small segment of highly active [Wikipedia] users author the majority of the site’s content”
That’s more oligarchial than it is democratic. And I’d be willing to bet that many of these users are also the same libertarian-leaning fanatics that often seek to skew the bias of certain articles on controversial topics. (It’s no coincidence that Ron Paul’s Wikipedia page is longer than Mitt Romney’s, and almost as long at Barack Obama’s).
If Wikipedia is serious about maintaining their credibility, they should encourage more mainstream Internet users to contribute. This would even out participation a bit more and allow for a more robust marketplace of viewpoints to inform the articles that are written.