Wikipedia – Who is the authority for the Truth?

How can it be that anyone can write, and everyone believes it?

Thinking about it – the idea of Wikipedia is crazy. From the traditional encyclopedia, written and verified by experts, the world has converted to an open platform of knowledge sharing as the source of truth.

How did it happen?

It started in 2001 as a complementary product to an online traditional encyclopedia, “Nupedia”. The founders decided to enable articles that are publicly edited, with only two rules: Write things that others can verify, in a neutral point of view. As the platform grew and in order to ensure these two rules, additional restrictions were put in place, such as that only registered users can write and review articles.

The main driver behind the amazing phenomena is the community. “The Wikipedians”, which stand on about 31.7M people today (!). These are the ones who spend Billions of human hours to make sure that I can have immediate access to any random topic on earth. Why? Good questions. Various studies have been done to solve this mystery: belief in the values of sharing knowledge and education, learning by doing, supporting ideologies, gaining work experience, and the interesting of them all (in my eyes)– gaining recognition within the Wikipedians community.

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This community is so strong, that it stands behind not only the extensive growth of this giant (37M articles in 250 languages), but also its integrity. And that is the key here. Today, if it’s written in Wikipedia – it’s true. You can rely on it for your academic studies, reference it in social interactions and base on it personal decisions you make. Here and there are stories that show the flaws in this system, but the way Wikipedia is incorporated in our daily lives – it is De-Facto the source of truth.

The biggest challenge for Wikipedia is the delicate balance between the freedom of contributing to the platform and the integrity of the articles. First, no one “owns” the truth, and there are many topics where, no matter how long the discussion might be, there is no one right way to address things. The current solution is the statement: “this article might be unbalanced towards certain viewpoints”, with a call to improve the article. But who is the main authority to judge?

Second, there is a limited ability to track problematic edits that are done to an article. The rule today is that claims that are likely to be challenged require a reference resource, and the main motto is “verifiability, not truth” – to express that the readers are in charge on verifying the information. Yet critics easily find flaws and argue that Wikipedia’s open nature and a lack of proper sources for most of the information makes it unreliable. As a consequence of the open structure, Wikipedia “makes no guarantee of validity” of its content, since no one is ultimately responsible for any claims appearing in it. But the rules haven’t changes, and all users can register as an editor with a recommendation from an existing editor.

The value creation for the world’s population here is clear. Wikipedia is the 6th most used website in the world, with 8B visitors every month. Community members gain value here as well, otherwise they wouldn’t spend hours of their time writing, verifying and discussing different topics.

The value capturing is interesting: this is a non-profit, and every once and a while, the website suggests that you contribute one dollar. And then I think to myself – is this really all they are asking for after all these hours that I am spending here? (I based all my math degree on Wikipedia) of course I will donate!

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If they wanted, they could have captured much more value. They have such a critical mass, brand name and community as a resource, that there is no way that a competitor will rise in time prevent this. And yet, it seems against their values of free knowledge sharing and education the world. Is it possible that there are organizations in this world that operate solely on values?

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Student comments on Wikipedia – Who is the authority for the Truth?

  1. Great post! I particularly like the discussion at the end about value capture. I imagine that if Wikipedia tried to monetize the site, the reputation for information integrity would be at risk. Wikipedia was not always considered a reliable source – in the 2000’s, I remember it being banned as a resource for research papers in my school. I think the deliberate decision to avoid advertising/sponsorship enabled it to build this reputation over time — I can’t imagine trusting an encyclopedia page littered with advertisements. To that point, considering nearly anyone can be a contributor, what checks are in place to stop corporations from slyly promoting their brands on various relevant wikipedia pages?

  2. In elementary school, I remember thumbing through the thick volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica at the library. As computers became more readily available in schools, we started using the Encyclopedia Britannica CD-ROMs for research projects. Nearly a decade later, Encyclopedia Britannica no longer offers their information in books or CD-ROMs. They are strictly an online publication now, and arguably a direct competitor of Wikipedia. What I find so interesting about this is that Encyclopedia Britannica articles, written by one distinguished expert, are traditionally an acceptable source, while Wikipedia articles, written by multiple self-declared experts, are not. I would argue that the crowdsourced articles of Wikipedia are more well-rounded, because the sources are from multiple points of view. Therefore, the open platform of knowledge sharing can be just, if not more, reliable than traditional sources.

  3. Questioning the quality of wikipedia is vital to its survival in my option. Especially as content online continues to grow. A lot of facts on Wikipedia need to be cited or verified through other articles and publications etc. There was a study done a few years ago (that I cannot find now:() where there is a time lag where information can literally be made up and then verified falsely later. In the study an individual put some false information, a quotation, about an individual who recently died on wikipedia. In the time is was on the site without a reference and before it was taken down it was picked up by a journalist and published on a media website. The individual then retyped the false quote on wikipedia and used the journalists article as the reference – legitimizing the false quote. In the next 24 hours this quote was used by many major media companies.

    1. Agreed! It’s a problem when professors, for example, explicitly state that they won’t qualify Wikipedia articles as true, verified sources for research. How can Wikipedia verify quality in the future? And even if they can, will they be able to turn around their reputation?

  4. I do not know where I would be without Wikipedia. The community of editors is critical to the value of the contributions, although the lag in flagging inappropriate comments or false information affects the value of the content. I appreciate the non-profit structure of the company and the lack of ads to maintain control and integrity of the platform; however, I do think that given the scale of the platform and its importance to billions of users worldwide, the company should look into a more viable business model that allows it to capture more value so that way it can improve the quality of entries and the timeliness of edits. Particularly given that, as someone mentioned above, Wikipedia is replacing the expensive Encyclopedia Britannica’s and is often the first source of information, its prominence is unquestioned; as such, it needs to reevaluate the how it captures and delivers value.

  5. Great post! Wikipedia is the first example that comes to mind when I think about crowdsourcing. It has solved the quality control problem in part through the track record established by “The Wikipedians,” but your post me think about potential issues that might face Wikipedia in the future. First, is the imbalance between the number of contributors and the users sustainable? You talk about the importance of gaining recognition within the community as strong motivation for the contributors, but what happens with another Wikipedia-like community emerges? The arrival of Genius on the scene feels like a direct competitor to Wikipedia (http://www.wsj.com/articles/start-up-genius-wants-to-annotate-the-internet-1446126027). Should or is Wikipedia feel threatened? And how should Wikipedia respond? Can Wikipedia contributors multi-home and if so, how will that impact the quality of the content?

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