I Can Explain… Wikipedia

Originally published on February 25, 2011 in Retirement News Weekly

Google any word right now: retirement, beagles, existentialism. It doesn’t really matter what the word is. What you’ll likely find as one of your top three search results is an entry from Wikipedia. This collection of editable information has increasingly been used as a go-to source for quick explanations and understanding. But what is it, is it reliable, and what do its detractors say? In my own sort of Wikipedia entry-with attitude… I can explain!

Let’s start with the word itself. Wikipedia is a combination of the words “encyclopaedia” and “wiki.” We all know what an encyclopaedia is, but what, you may ask, is a wiki? And is it at all similar to a kiwi?

A wiki is a particular type of website that allows any user to edit its content. I’ve seen it used by businesses to compile schedules and stories; as well, I’ve seen it used in classrooms where a teacher may have his students create a wiki collectively with all the information they learned in class (Thanks, Professor Bradley!).

Wikipedia is just a very popular online encyclopaedia in wiki form. It was launched in 2001 as an experiment and now contains over 17 million articles in multiple languages. These articles were written by average people across the world and are corrected and edited by anyone with access to the internet. The theory is that with so many editors balancing out information, the ‘truth’ will be revealed. Users are strongly encouraged to cite their sources and uncited information is flagged as requiring further research. However the site does not leave it up entirely to its users and hires teams of individuals that oversee software which is ensures that entries are not edited for the purpose of mockery or misinformation. This team also can lock certain entries to prevent any editing if the entry is controversial and a target for vandalism.

One example of this is a stunt pulled by Stephen Colbert, a popular TV-personality and satirist, in 2006. On his show he explained how Wikipedia has created a kind-of “wikiality” in which anyone can edit and post information on the website and if enough people agree, the new information becomes a sort of digital truth. He changed his own Wikipedia post, George Washington’s, and then encouraged his viewers to edit posts about elephants. He wanted them to say that the population of elephants has tripled in the last six months. By changing it on Wikipedia, it would become reality he declared to playfully mock the idea of truth in an editable age. Twenty different articles were edited within the hour and Colbert was blocked from the site.

Critics of Wikipedia say that since the information is often edited by average people and not experts, it is not accurate or reliable. Others say the site focuses too much on Popular Culture, with 30% of its articles on culture and the arts and 15% on biographies; comparatively only 2% of the articles are on health and 2% are on religion. Conservapedia is similar to Wikipedia in format. However it claims that Wikipedia has a left-wing biased. It presents its articles with a very distinctive American-Conservative spin.

Whether you’re getting your information from television, books, or sites like Wikipedia it’s good that you’re at least trying to stay informed and I applaud you. While the site may not always be accurate, it has made information accessible and allowed for user generated content and editing. This development means we can all contribute to a better understanding of the world around us and that can’t be too bad.

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