Fascinating Facts on Wikipedia

Appearing before a standing-room only audience, Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikimedia Foundation and developer of Wikipedia, described some of its guiding principles. Wikimedia aims to distribute a free encyclopedia to a worldwide audience in their own language. Wikipedia is written by thousands of volunteers, and because it is built on the Wiki software, users are completely free to copy, modify, and redistribute the articles.

The English language Wikipedia has over 800,000 articles and is larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta combined. Other languages are not as large; German is second with over 300,000 articles, followed by French, Japanese, and Polish. Thirty languages have over 10,000 articles, and 75 have around 1,000. Wikipedia is a Top 40 Web site, and according to Alexa, it has a broader reach than the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC.com, Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune. Wikipedia has about 2.4 billion page views a month. It is housed in multiple data centers on over 120 servers that are managed by volunteers.

A common concern with Wikipedia is that the quality of the articles will degenerate because they are freely editable. I was interested to hear that experience has shown that this has not happened. Instead, the articles eventually reach steady state corresponding to highest degree of accuracy. They are written by thousands of individual users who do not know each other. Each contributes a little bit, and out of this comes a community working to guarantee the quality and integrity of the content.

Wikipedia’s experience has significant implications, and the well-known 80/20 rule clearly does not apply in this social networking community. Many systems have systems that rate users (eBay, for example), but in the community model, users are powerful and must be respected. The Wikipedia community is very tight; over half of the edits are done by just 0.7% of all users (615 people), and the most active 2% (1746 users) has done 75% of the edits. Quality is maintained by placing every edit on a “Recent Changes” page, which is watched by hundreds of people daily. Suspicious or erroneous edits or those not made in good faith do not last very long. In addition, every version of every page is stored in a history file, so it is easy to compare different versions of same article. These measures make it easy to catch errors or spurious articles. Wikipedia users can also discuss whether pages should be deleted or not.

Wales characterized the governance of Wikipedia as a “confusing but workable mix” of consensus (voting on article content is discouraged), democracy (some voting occurs and decisions must be made, so democracy is a means of gaining consensus), aristocracy (long-time users can do things that new users can’t, i.e. make a change and have it stick because people trust them), and monarchy (Wales’s role as a position of trust in decision-making and defending the community). He concluded by saying that it is important to be flexible about social methodology and emphasize results over the process.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today

Comments are closed.