So much has been written and said about the website known as Wikipedia that many people may start to wonder what exactly Wikipedia is. Wikipedia is simply a Wiki Encyclopedia (a wiki being defined as "a Web site that allows visitors to make changes, contributions, or corrections" [Webster.com]). If the Encyclopedia Britannica is a chauffer-driven limousine, then Wikipedia is the bus loaded with passengers with each having a turn at the steering wheel.
In this Tech Tip, we’re going to take a look at this Wikipedia bus and check out what exactly it is.
Who's Driving This Thing?! YOU ARE!
Started in 2001, Wikipedia now offers over 2,847,000+ articles in the English language (and many more in other languages). Wikipedia is different from other encyclopedias. Instead of an advisory body of experts and a review process, Wikipedia is a free for all. Anyone can make, add to, and edit an article – all for free and even anonymously (though you can sign up with a user name as well, and would need to if you wanted to create a new article). Since 2003, Wikipedia (and its cousins such as Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikinews, etc.) have been overseen by the Wikimedia Foundation . Within Wikipedia, there are different levels of users, just straight editors (you, me, the man down the street) and Administrators (think of them as über editors).
Because Wikipedia is set up the way it is, there are several positive characteristics of this informational forum. One is that you can have a comprehensive, well-written collaborative article up in no time - even on topics not covered by traditional encyclopedias. For instance, with the sensation that occurred when Susan Boyle sang on Britain’s Got Talent television program on April 11, 2009, we find that a Wikipedia article was started about her on April 12, 2009 and has since been revised over 2100 times to date (May 5, 2009). The end result is a very comprehensive, very informative encyclopedic article. Another big positive with this approach is that if you happen to be browsing an article and see something as small as a misspelling or as big as starting an article that you think should be included, you can quickly and easily edit or add the article on the fly. Note that if you don’t like to see your work added to by strangers, edited mercilessly or even removed altogether, then contributing to Wikipedia may not be for you.
A Look Under The Hood
Looking for an article is very straightforward and easy. After navigating to the website (www.wikipedia.org), you are introduced to a search box. Simply type in your search, and you are brought to the article if one exists. For words with many entries (such as "Ringo"), you are brought to what is commonly called a disambiguation page where you find various entries for the word are listed (for example, with Ringo, you find a number of “ringos” listed – everything from musician Ringo Starr to author John Ringo). Now, if we click through to an article (we’ll use the author listed above), we find that there is a simple, straight forward article giving a brief biography and a list of published works .
You’ll also notice at the top of the page four tabs labeled article, discussion, edit this page, and history. Edit this page is self -explanatory. Here you can actually edit the article if you think something can be phrased better; if you want to add information or if you simply want to fine tune the article. If you’d like to see the current thoughts on the article, simply click “discussion” – note that this page is editable as well as allowing you to weigh in on discussing the article along with others (this page has an “edit this page” button separate from the main article). History is simply every SINGLE revision of the page from its creation to the time you are looking at the article (including the editor (IP address if anonymous) - person who did the edit) - very helpful if you’d like to see earlier versions of the article. Of course, there are numerous tools and extensive help sections if you’d like to become more than just a casual editor (found of the left hand side navigation bar).
Cracks in The Chassis
Of course, with its obvious strength also lies Wikipedia’s inherent weakness. Sometimes, articles by committee – especially a committee of everyone – may not necessarily produce the best possible work. Biases, personal opinion, not being scrupulous about the accuracy of the information provided, deliberate defacement, unfavorable information as well as false and misleading information can all cloud the integrity of an article as well as the website as a whole (as demonstrated by the 2005 incident on the John F. Kennedy Wikipedia article). Because of the free-for all nature of the site, another side effect can be varying quality of articles (less popular articles may not receive the attention that they need) as well as “edit wars” erupting from time to time on sensitive subjects. Also, with the imbalance of power between administrators and editors, some have accused the administrators of “bullying” others to have their edits “win out” over others. Yes, Wikipedia depends on users (editors and administrators) to help monitor and clean up articles – but mistakes do slip through. Because of this, sometimes it may be best to take some articles “with a grain of salt.”
The Bus Came By and I Got On, That's When It All Began!
Wikipedia, the massive, hugely successful, popular collaborative encyclopedia website is a prime example of what the power of the internet can bring to the average user. Here we not only have volumes of information (so to speak), but the ability to add to and improve this information. Even with its shortcomings, Wikipedia has much to offer. Why not try your hand at the wheel of the bus and see where Wikipedia steers you and where you can steer Wikipedia.