What Wikipedia Is, and How it Works

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Understanding Wikipedia

Since its founding in 2001, “Wikipedia” has exploded in growth, providing Internet users with millions of articles on a broad range of topics.  But the accuracy of information on Wikipedia cannot be taken for granted.  The site itself writes that "while some of the articles are of the highest quality of scholarship, others are admittedly rubbish...use [Wikipedia] with an informed understanding of what it is and isn't."  To attain such an understanding, read on.

What Wikipedia Is, and How it Works

 Wikipedia, as the name suggests, uses a "wiki" system to build out its encyclopedia. What exactly is a wiki? The online dictionary Webopedia defines a wiki as "a collaborative Web site [comprising] the perpetual collective work of many authors…A wiki allows anyone to edit, delete or modify content that has been placed on the Web site…including the work of previous authors." Since Wikipedia is open to the public, anyone with an Internet connection is free to anonymously contribute to the online encyclopedia by either adding a new article or editing a previous author's work.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • Wikipedia is largely controlled by a limited number of administrators who have the power to purge articles and ban editors. Like editors, these administrators remain anonymous and do not have to prove any expertise to establish their authority. 
  • Wikipedia itself warns readers that "We do not expect you to trust us....some articles are of the highest quality...(but) others are admittedly complete rubbish....we are not a primary source...use [Wikipedia] with an informed understanding of what it is and what it isn't."
  • The first wiki Web site was created in 1995 by Ward Cunningham to promote a freer exchange of information between computer programmers. He got the word “wiki” from the Hawaiian word for “quick” and called his Web site “WikiWikiWeb.”
  • Although Wikipedia is the most well known wiki Web site, it is hardly the only one. MakeUseOf.com has a great list of some of the cooler and more useful wiki sites out there.  
  • The corporate world has taken note of the usefulness of wiki technology and has begun to incorporate it internally. Companies ranging from Nokia to IBM and even the CIA have set up their own internal wikis to make information flow more efficiently.
  • Wikipedia is a nonprofit that does not accept advertising and relies on donations to stay alive.  Recently, the Los Angeles Times has described the financial difficulties facing Wikipedia due to this business model. 

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Using Wikipedia Effectively

With a database of over two million articles and an enthusiastic community of editors, Wikipedia has grown to be one of the ten most popular sites on the Web. Myriad criticisms of Wikipedia’s credibility have not deterred the site’s visitors. So are these millions of users haphazardly receiving misinformation, or are they capitalizing on benefits that surpass its flaws? In this section we’ll explore the ways in which one can use Wikipedia effectively, and shed light on some its advantages.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • One of the benefits of using Wikipedia is the enormous number of articles it contains on so many different topics. Whether you’re looking to find basic information on popular culture or something much more obscure, Wikipedia will most likely have an article. In September 2007, the English language version of Wikipedia passed the two millionth article mark.
  • Wikipedia has a policy that requires its contributors to cite verifiable online sources for the items they are writing. While enforcement of this rule for more obscure topics on the site can sometimes be lax, the more popular articles usually have citations. One useful way to use Wikipedia is as a jumping point to other potentially more trustworthy resources, which appear as citations at the bottom of many Wikipedia entries.
  • Look for Wikipedia to be more accurate on non-controversial topics such as hard sciences or ancient history. Disputed historical and political events are often colored by the contributor's ideology, even if done so unintentionally.
  • The depth of Wikipedia articles is affected by how many devoted contributors there are to the topic. This sometimes creates a wacky sense of priority, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. For instance, the Wikipedia entry on the fictional Jedi warriors from the Star Wars series is 2.5 times longer than that on the Founding Fathers of the United States.
  • Often, articles without citations, with debated neutrality or that appear incomplete, are labeled as such by a banner at the top of the page. This allows other editors to look for and pick up the slack, and for readers to be aware that the given article is unreliable.

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Potential Flaws of Wikipedia

Wikipedia’s anarchic nature has led to some major criticism. Some of the more important and relevant critiques for wary Internet researchers are discussed in-depth below.

Dulcinea's Insight

  • As Wikipedia can be edited by anyone with an Internet connection, it’s subject to changes by users who falsify entries. Wikipedia claims that peer reviewers quickly delete this “vandalism.” However, it’s been shown that for less researched topics, the false information can remain online for extended periods of time. When surfing Wikipedia, take the information you read with a grain of salt. It’s recommended to never cite Wikipedia in any academic work.
  • In 2007, it was discovered that individuals with a clear conflict of interest had written some Wikipedia entries. This occurred after a computer programmer created the Web site "WikiScanner." Researchers using this site could trace Wikipedia edits to their sources and found that some supposed "facts" were coming from biased sources. Employees from companies such as the New York Times Company and Congressional offices were editing Wikipedia entries superficially and substantively in their employer's favor.
  • When trying to find information on current events, Wikipedia's reliability heads south quickly. Peer reviewers often don’t have time to quickly review new articles and remove any intentionally or unintentionally created statements that are untrue. This “Washington Post” column relays how news of former Enron executive Kenneth Lay’s death was initially distorted by Wikipedia writers.

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Community Links in Wikipedia

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