Wikipedia: Brought to You by…Who Again?

Another day, dear readers, and another blog post…or five. First up for today is the topic of Wikipedia. While I am not an avid user myself, as Wikipedia is generally not accepted as a reference for academic papers, it has provided me with knowledge on a number of topics when I have turned to it for some leisure reading. I have also used, on more than one occasion, the references listed at the bottom of Wikipedia articles to track down actual academic papers to use as sources for some of my own research. There are those that turn to Wikipedia for most of their knowledge, as well as for getting the daily news or for fact checking along with Google.

I suppose that I am just not enthralled with Wikipedia the same way that others are. It is the same to me as YouTube. I go there if there is something specific that I am searching for, but I never find myself getting sidetracked by endlessly clicking links until I am on a page so far removed from my original topic that I cannot remember how I came to be there. This is not to say that I do not appreciate Wikipedia for the colossal achievement that it is. It is, perhaps, the most impressive example of communal knowledge that exists today. It is constantly being edited, updated, and policed, which seems to give it an edge over textbooks and encyclopedias. Why then, is it also plagued with doubts over the quality of the information it contains as well as its accuracy and neutrality? This has everything to do with the fact that it is a collection of shared knowledge, the so-called wisdom of the crowd. It is because we do not really know who it is that writes Wikipedia that makes it so suspect. While I am, admittedly, not interested enough in Wikipedia to care about its innerworkings, there are a number of researchers that care about this topic quite a bit. As an educator, it may be worth knowing how Wikipedia is written and maintained as we are all bound to have students that present works with Wikipedia as their source. So who does write Wikipedia?

Kittur et. al (2007) separate Wikipedia users into two groups. There are the elites, made up of administrators and high-edit users, and then there are the common users. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, once stated that 2.5% of the users on Wikipedia were responsible for half of the edits made (pp. 1-2). This was in 2004. At that time, a very small number of the elite users were creating and editing a majority of Wikipedia’s content. As Kittur et. al. noted, this is significant because the question of who is doing the work at Wikipedia also determines how resources are allocated. The tools and features that are designed at Wikipedia likely cater to these users who have such a heavy influence. It seems only fair as administrators are selected through a strict peer-review process and after demonstrating themselves to be trustworthy. These admins then gain abilities that are not accessible to other users, such as the ability to lock pages temporarily so that they cannot be edited (p.2).

The concern here is, with 2.5% of the users making half of the edits, and administrators being few in numbers, can we really say that the information on Wikipedia is unbiased? Thankfully there was a shift away from this domination by the elite starting in 2006, when the percentage of the total number of edits made by administrators dropped drastically. Many hypotheses on the cause of this phenomenon were examined, but it was ultimately discovered that a rise in the total number of low-edit users was the driving factor. EVen though administrators and elite users were not decreasing their activity on Wikipedia, the population growth of low-edit users was so significant that the small number of edits and changes to content in articles accounted for a majority of the edits made (p. 7). While this certainly makes Wikipedia seem more neutral, the anonymous nature of its authors still keeps it from being a source that we, as educators, can allow our students to utilize, in my opinion.

And then we come to the work of Niederer and van Dijck (2010), which frustrates me if only because they never seem to give a clear purpose for their paper. It seems as if they want to discredit the reliability of Wikipedia’s information, as so many of Wikipedia’s detractors do, but they never outright say so. Their main point seems to be that most existing research on Wikipedia focuses on the human element without ever mentioning the interaction between the human editors and the multitude of bots that help to maintain Wikipedia in the background (p. 2). They want to argue that most Web 2.0 technologies are an elaborate socio-technical system rather than an achievement of human ingenuity by itself (p. 4). Again, I find myself questioning the point. Are bots and the technological portion of these other socio-technical constructs not created and programmed by humans?

In the research by Kittur et. al., the bots are mentioned in the research as one possible explanation for the decline in the percentage of edits by elite users, which is shown to be false, but certainly there is acknowledgement that there are bots at work doing important edits and content creation tasks on Wikipedia. What more is to be said and how is it relevant? Unfortunately, the authors rehash a lot of the research by Kittur et. al. concerning the trend of elite users refining technology and managerial systems before the common users begin to become the primary users of a system (p. 7). I can only gather that they are trying to make the case that because most edits are now being made by the common, low-edit users, Wikipedia’s ability to quickly deal with vandalism is now due mostly to the vigilance of bots than of committed community members. Even so, what difference does this make? Human programmers designed these bots with the same thinking and methodology of human users (p. 12).

The only interesting part of this article for me is that, in the case of articles and content written in endangered world languages, it is bots creating and editing large portions of the content compared to common language articles (p. 21). Of course, I find this interesting only in that Wikipedia and its bots are helping to preserve languages that are dying out, not for any reason related to education. Ultimately, the authors end by stating that understanding these underlying elements in all Web 2.0 technologies is fundamental for truly understanding how the Internet works. I cannot bring myself to agree, however. I am aware that this is not an article related to education and is purely focusing on technology, but I still fail to see the point. Perhaps it is because the authors seem to keep saying that it is important to understand how these technologies work without actually giving us the “why.”

Kittur, A., Chi, E. H., Pendleton, B. A., Suh, B., & Mytkowicz, T. (2007). Power of the few vs. wisdom of the crowd: Wikipedia and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Paper presented at Alt.CHI ’07, San Jose, California: ACM.

Niederer, S. & van Dijck, J. (2010). Wisdom of the crowd or technicity of content? Wikipedia as a sociotechnical system. New Media & Society, 12, 1368-1387.