Wikipedia

From Media Technology and Culture Change

Wikipedia is the combination of “wiki” and “encyclopedia.”

Wikipedia is a free web based encyclopedia that is written collaboratively by its users in wikis format. Most of the articles can be edited and subject to change by anyone with internet access. Since its creation on January 15th, 2001 in Tampa Bay, Florida, the site has garnered approximately 7.2 million articles in 251 languages and is currently in the top fifteen most-visited websites. In 2003, wikipedia launched the wikibooks[1] project for free content textbooks and has not achieved the same success.

Due to the fact that anyone can edit the encyclopedia, people have criticized Wikipedia for being unreliable and inaccurate. However, studies have shown that Wikipedia rivals other encyclopedias for accuracy. There are 3 key characteristics that can explain this: ability to self-police, instantaneous editing, and modularity.

It should be noted that Wikipedia is a regulated commons, both in terms of user convention and administrative controls. As Benkler puts it, Wikipedia requires "a particular style of writing and describing concepts that is far from intuitive or natural. It requires self-discipline" (Benkler 74). Many of today's media scholars such as Lessig, Benkler, and Boyle advocate finding a middle road between "open" and "closed," and arguably Wikipedia achieves something close to this. What makes Wikipedia such a unique form of peer production is that while there are regulatory measures built into the architecture of the software, administrators rarely block particular users or lock an article. The true wiki spirit is to allow the community itself to discuss and determine what is credible and to add a viewpoint to a subjective article in order to make it objective. The ability to "talk" to specific editors as well as the discussion page are two important tools that facilitate self-policing. Only after the community itself fails to come to a resolution and users get in a sort of editing "battle" will the administrators put a hold on the site until tensions cool down.

Another important technical property of the medium itself is the speed with which edits can be made. Unlike any print source, Wikipedia at least in theory is always up to date...the architecture is there to support timeliness as long as the community embraces it. Furthermore, this property is one reason why it rivals other encyclopedias in terms of accuracy. Benkler sites the example of an incident in which the entire article on abortion was deleted. But the community was so quick to respond, the vandalism was corrected within minutes and the article remains unharmed in the long run (Benkler 74).

Finally, Benkler talks about "modularity" as "the extent to which it [a project] can be broken down into smaller components, or modules, that can be independently produced before they can be assembled into a whole" (Benkler 101). The fact that each article can be broken down into smaller parts (sections, sentences, or even words) is what prevents a single author from writing an entire article and inserting his subjective viewpoint. Wikipedia achieves objectivity not through singularity, but through including multiple viewpoints. However, it should be noted that modularity is not always taken advantage of. There are plenty of articles that have only one author or have someone who rigorously edits all additions to a page that he does not agree with (i.e. Ted King on the Facebook page). The history tab can be a useful indicator of how objective an article is by indicating the number of different users who have contributed.

The question still stands whether Wikipedia belongs in the academic world or should be merely reference for popular culture, a debate which has emerged here at the college and elsewhere as particular professors/departments ban citing Wikipedia in formal essays.

Links

http://www.wikipedia.org

References

1) "Academia and Wikipedia." http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2005/01/04/academia_and_wikipedia.html 2) Yochai Benkler, The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006