Wikipedia as a reliable source of information
October 3, 2008
Many students are aware of a little well-known fact in the United States: teachers don’t like when students use Wikipedia to gather information and it is certainly not accepted as a reliable source of information.
Two weeks ago, I participated in a meeting where Jay Walsh was being interviewed by Andrzej S Zwaniecki from US State department. Although Zwaniecki’s questions were a diverse aray of what is typically asked of those who work for the Wikimedia Foundation, he did in fact draw my attention to one key problem Wikipedia users face: how can Wikipedia be trusted as a reliable source of information when anyone or everyone is able to edit the information?
It is a truly fundamental question. How does one trust a product like Wikipedia to provide truthful information when it can be edited by anyone? When a company or a product gives the general public such free reign to edit information there is bound to be some sort of flaw in the information due to misinformed individuals and those who find personal enjoyment by vandalizing the information.
How does this problem not spin out of control and what does the Wikimedia Foundation do to manage it? The answer is surprisingly simple: no one who works for the Wikimedia Foundation does anything to manage it, minus a few technical revisions now and then.
The key to Wikipedia’s success to being a relatively reliable source of information is the community of volunteers who freely give up their time and skills to make sure that Wikipedia is as “vandalism free” as possible.
The Wikimedia Foundation does not employee editors or referees to regulate what comes and goes on Wikipedia, rather the volunteers create their own hierarchy which manages information on Wikipedia. The power of the information that this hierarchy manages is extraordinary; with over two and a half million articles on the English Wikipedia alone, information is categorized and available through the open source movement in a much more detailed and informative way.
What is unknown or maybe even just overlooked by many is that every single person in the world is able to join this community of volunteers. Only 20% or so of the visitors to Wikipedia actually edit the information on the Web site. Think about all of the information Wikipedia has already gathered and imagine that multiplied by 4x. If every visitor to the Web site chipped in a tiny bit of knowledge, just a little unknown fact that he or she happened to have come across, the world would be able to freely access almost any knowledge. The possibilities would be endless.
Some people dislike that Wikipedia is an open forum for people to add whatever little piece of information they have about a subject but that’s the most beautiful thing about Wikipedia. There are countless encyclopedias in existence, but Wikipedia is the most visited one online because Wikipedia’s information is always expanding and is up to date to the minute because of volunteers who dedicate their time to sharing knowledge.
Sarah Palin’s VP nomination is a perfect example of the advantage of the open source concept, most commonly known through Wikipedia, over the typical spreading of knowledge. It is no secret that Palin’s nomination was published on Wikipedia before it was announced on the news; someone edited her Wikipedia page minutes before it became public knowledge that she would be named the Republican VP nominee. Since anyone is able to add information to Wikipedia pages, more information can be gathered at a faster pace than other websites can produce and millions of volunteers all over the world regulate the information that goes in and out.
A Wikipedia page might not always be 100% correct, but odds are if you check back into that page, the error will have been fixed within a week. It is important for the public to have a source like Wikipedia, arguably the purest repository of information in the world today.