The idea of an encyclopedia about everything, and one that’s freely available for everyone, seems almost utopic — and yet, for over two decades, Wikipedia has been pretty much just that. But then again, Wikipedia only has a handful of editors, and the majority of content comes from the public. So how good is it?
Unsurprisingly, there have been several scientific efforts aimed at measuring how accurate Wikipedia is; also unsurprisingly, this has proven very difficult given the scale and variability of articles (both in terms of how complex and interpretable they are, and in terms of how often they are edited). Studies have shown that in terms of accuracy, Wikipedia is pretty impressive, sometimes scoring 99% accuracy, although its articles weren’t always complete, and weren’t always quickly updated.
Since Wikipedia content can be created and edited by volunteers from all around the world, this naturally creates a system where some articles, which are “hot” or popular, receive more attention — some articles are updated hundreds of times per day — while others receive less.
At first glance, this seems like chaos. But the chaos seems to work.
When an article is edited very often, inaccuracies or aspects of debate are highlighted and weeded out. Behind the scenes, Wikipedia editors leave marks and comments, discussing whether something should be changed or removed, or debating why some changes should or shouldn’t be made. Right off the bat, this makes Wikipedia a place where a variety of voices are encouraged and represented, unlike the more traditional encyclopedias. This makes the information on the website more well-rounded and nuanced, and usually more in tune with society’s ever-changing norms. But occasionally, it often breeds a lot of controversy.
For instance, Wikipedia members have long debated what to call Ernest Hemingway’s third child. The child became a doctor and wrote books as Gregory, but later on, lived as Gloria after undergoing gender-affirming surgery, and later on in life, would use a third name: Vanessa. Ultimately, Wikipedia editors decided to go with Gloria.
This decision, which wasn’t without its detractors, shapes more than just its page — because in some regards, Wikipedia shapes the entire world. Wikipedia’s millions of articles are read by billions every month, but they’re also used for direction by journalists and other opinion-shapers. They’re integrated into official fact-checks on conspiracy-theory YouTube videos, and in training AIs like Siri, Alexa, or ChatGPT.
This type of article tends to get a lot of attention and stir a lot of debate, and indeed, there’s a lot to debate here. But the silent hero of Wikipedia isn’t this type of article — it’s the countless simple, verifiable facts placed in the millions of boring articles. How does a small minority of employees reign in all the contributors, especially on controversial or politically sensitive topics that may be subject to bias?
Well, it doesn’t always do a perfect job; especially right off the bat. It’s not uncommon to see a sportsperson or politician’s wiki page vandalized after they do something unpopular, but in the long run, editors leverage a remarkably efficient knowledge management system.
Knowledge management system is a process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge within an organization. Large-scale organizations regularly use this approach that involves the identification and capture of valuable knowledge (such as expertise and experience) and making it available to those that need it. Wikipedia editors have self-organized and developed systems that optimize article editing and reduce the risk of inaccuracies. Wikipedia has a pretty strict and consistent style, and experienced editors work to help those with less experience streamline the writing and editing process and bring it in line with the rest of Wikipedia.
Granted, Wikipedia’s operations are perhaps not as complex as those of other large companies that use knowledge management, but the fact that the community has more or less self-organized to do this is impressive.
The end result is an ever-changing behemoth that is vulnerable to vandalism and misinformation — but remarkably resilient in the long term. Ultimately, while teachers may be against it, Wikipedia is a pretty reliable and accurate source of information. But the accuracy, quality, and completeness of information on Wikipedia can vary significantly. So at the end of the day, it’s not a place where you should look for absolute facts, but rather as a starting point for documentation. The fact that Wikipedia’s own knowledge management features an extensive system of citations means that usually, you can find the original source for that information and verify it through.
In conclusion, Wikipedia can be a valuable source for information, but you should use it with caution, and it’s always a good idea to cross-check information with external sources, and be aware of the potential for bias and inaccuracies.
In the meantime, Wikipedia will continue to shape the world, informing billions of people every month. No doubt, it’s one of the most important websites in existence.