Public encyclopedia – Wikipedia
Encyclopedias have come a long way since the age of hefty volumes of books. I clearly remember the time when I used to visit the American Center Library in Islamabad to work on research projects that were assigned in school. Large volumes of encyclopedia were the only good source of information without the Internet. Finding the needed material was only the first step towards obtaining information followed by writing the needed information by hand or photocopying the pages. Then came typing the work in a word processor and it was all quite time consuming yet interesting.
The advent of the Internet and new media has definitely changed the entire media landscape. Today encyclopedias are not known by the large volumes of books but by the ease of information accessibility. A click of a button reveals so much more information and that too from a myriad of different sources. An obvious issue arising in the Internet world is that of credibility of information. Since it is easy to post information on the World Wide Web (WWW), an important question that arises is that of information credibility on a site where no single person is contributing. Before we delve into Wikipedia trust issues, let us revisit what Wikipedia really is. It is often noted that many consider Wikipedia to be just another encyclopedia available online.
Wikipedia defines itself as “a free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation”. Founded by Jimmy Wales in 2001, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It has become one of the most popular Internet sites. Statistics reveal that Wikipedia is the seventh most-visited destination on the internet. A 2007 Pew Research Center study reveals that “Wikipedia has become the No. 1 external site visited after Google’s search page, receiving over half of its traffic from the search engine.”
Is Wikipedia more or less accurate than an encyclopedia such as Britannica? This may always be open for discussion, but the ability to witness real-time updates makes Wikipedia surpass any encyclopedia in terms of reach and efficiency. Citizen journalism plays a key role in ensuring the accuracy of Wikipedia. This user-generated encyclopedia now competes and even surpasses with the well-established encyclopedias that are written by experts. A Nature magazine article in 2006 even stated that “Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries”.
Can we trust Wikipedia?
There is little doubt regarding the widespread use and convenience of Wikipedia. It is the skepticism often associated with the content available on Wikipedia that forms the motivation of this discussion. This is where convenience meets the credibility issue. Indeed there are dedicated individuals who update and edit pages but inaccuracy may still be a possibility. Even if the writing is accurate; a certain degree of biasedness expressed in an article may be enough to affect people’s opinions. This may be more so when the topic revolves around politics and the potential for a biased opinion can only increase. How than can we ensure that unbiased factual information is available on Wikipedia? Maybe new regulations may ensure further accuracy.
Trust in Wikipedia can be analyzed from a range of perspectives. Proponents argue that there is an actual community of passionate individuals involved who edit, re-edit and approve the legitimacy of your writing when a page is created. It is not a place for personal opinions and thoughts freely expressed without possible review. Rather, Wikipedia content may usually be based on claims that are often backed up by proof and evidence that is seen by anyone who visits the site. Proponents also argue that power is not concentrated in the hands of the few, therefore, the wisdom of the crowds results in a balanced view towards a topic.
Amongst other factors, convenience seems to be the key element guiding Wikipedia’s success. It has become a first choice for us to find meaning, definition and information. Our reliance on it as a one place where we would generally find what we want to know has increased. Following is a YouTube that highlights public views regarding trust and Wikipedia.
A participant in the video stated that “it’s still really convenient”. Maybe this sentence says it all. The human nature of finding ease makes Wikipedia a popular source for information searchers. Even though, Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that is editable by anyone who has access to it, the combined wisdom of the crowds makes it a decent choice for many.
It is interesting to see how a poly-centric resource comprised of independent editors and contributors around the world are able to together create such a useful resource. Those who edit and contribute may receive some sort of psychological satisfaction or a sense of achievement. The website articles although editable by all, do have certain safeguards that continually make Wikipedia a success. Such safeguards or guidelines require articles to be written from a neutral point of view. In addition, editors need to make use of verifiable sources, and include no original research. To avoid conflicts and disputes, it is evident that guidelines are being generally followed. An interesting point is here regarding articles that do not receive many clicks and may thus be more opinionated. This may mean that the more popular an article is, the more likely it is that it would be of a better quality.
So this brings us to the million dollar question – can we trust Wikipedia content? There may not be a right answer to this question, but the amount of interest and the widespread use of the site speaks volumes of its usefulness and popularity, thus dwarfing its inherent weaknesses.