Wikipedia: what, why & how?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia & me

“Why don’t you try your hand at Wikipedia”, my teacher asked me in 2009. Wikipedia was 8 years old then. It had already raced ahead of its print counterparts like Encyclopedia Britannica or Americana in terms of volume and popularity. I was only a user of this knowledge platform, unaware that I could also become a contributor. The teacher here was the same under whom I had honed my skill of writing and research and who used to encourage me for such activities from time to time. 

I took the plunge and began my journey as a writer or what Wikipedia calls as editor. My first edit appeared in September 2009. Since then I may not have made a significant contribution in terms of volume (about a thousand edits and 10 articles) but it has been an enriching experience as a researcher, writer and editor.

Today when it has turned 20, it is proper to look at this movement called Wikipedia. It is also important to understand why more and more people from different parts of the world should join it.

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia started by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger on 15 January 2001. The idea was to develop an online encyclopedia according to what Rick Gates had proposed in 1993 and what Richard Stallman had propagated, ‘free-as-in-freedom’, in December 2000.

Wiki was first launched as a feeder project for Wales-founded Nupedia, which was a free online encyclopedia run by only expert editors under some strict guidelines. Nupedia was founded in 2000 but its progress was so slow that only 12 articles were published in a period of one year. So a need was felt to start a project that could accelerate the pace of writing for Nupedia. It was in this context that Wikipedia came into being. Wiki is a Hawaiian word which means “to hurry, fast, quick” The growth of Wikipedia was so fast that it soon overtook its predecessor and emerged as a brand in itself. It had opened the floodgates for the community to write, edit, create.

Wikipedia became a hit soon after its launch in 2001 and it became the most important knowledge resource in the world, being used by students, journalists, and even academicians in due course. Now when it has turned 20 it has become a kind of phenomenon. According to an article published by BBC on 15 January 2021 (interestingly the source is Wikipedia itself) it has 56 million articles, 3 billion edits, 1.7 billion unique visitors a month, available in 316 languages. Another recent article published in The Guardian mentions, “It is the 13th most popular website on the internet, according to Amazon’s monitoring site, Alexa Internet, and the only one in the top 50 to be run on an entirely non-commercial basis”. 

In 2001 when Wikipedia was started, it was being supported by a non-profit organisation named Bomis. Jimmy Wales was one of the founders of Bomis. Since 2003 its owner is an organisation called Wikimedia Foundation that runs entirely on charity. Each year Wikimedia Foundation makes an appeal to its readers to donate. As soon as it receives the target money for the year, it closes its doors for donations. 

Initially Wikipedia was its only project but now there are eleven such projects being supported by Wikimedia Foundation: Wiktionary for words, Wikimedia Commons for media files, Wikibooks, Wikiquote, Wikisource, Wikiversity, Wikispecies, Wikivoyage, Wikinews, Wikidata & Wikipedia. The main goal of all these projects is to disseminate human knowledge by following the free content model.

Controversies

Since its inception Wikipedia has had its fair share of controversies. Involving the community for writing has been its major strength and the same has proved to be its major weakness on a number of occasions. Alex Hern, The Guardian’s UK Technology editor writes that when it was celebrating its fifth anniversary, in 2006, it became the subject of mockery in the mainstream press for its article on David Beckham. The article said, “David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century”. It became a “comedy of errors”. Also a case of vandalism that was fixed in 11 minutes. The article on David Beckham is one of the many that are ‘semi-protected’. The semi-protected articles can be edited only by registered users on Wikipedia. A list of Wikipedia controversies is available on its own site, here.

Reliability and accuracy

Despite the odds Wikipedia has played a stellar role in knowledge creation or its equitable distribution in the world. In 2005 a comparison was made by scholars between Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia by collecting 40 articles on Science from each. An average of three errors were found in Britannica and four in Wikipedia, a comparable level of accuracy.

Katherine Mehar, the Executive Director of Wikimedia Foundation, mentions that “a YouGov poll from 2014 found Wikipedia to be more trusted in the UK than BBC.” She is not pleased with this scenario though. She says, “If there is a trust deficit in the sources that we rely on then ultimately that deficit will catch up with us as well”. 

YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki “announced recently that the video site will henceforth will use excerpts from Wikipedia to counteract the videos promoting conspiracy theories.” What an irony! YouTube, one of the giants in the corporate world will depend on a volunteer-run platform like Wikipedia to fact check the information.

Need for diversity

Wikipedia has several outstanding achievements to its credit over a period of 20 years. However it is facing a major challenge even today. Its community is very far from being diverse. A recent Wikimedia Foundation survey has revealed that “about 91% of its editors are male and 77% are white. As of late 2019, only 18% of the biographies are about women. Far fewer than that are about non-whites.” Though Wikipedia’s English edition has more than 31000 editors, 11 other language editions have just over a 1000. Half of the language editions have less than 10. 

All these figures reflect how there is a dire need for diversity in the Wikipedia community. Editors are required for many languages other than English. A better representation is expected from the Asian and African countries. The scenario in the Indian languages is not that great. Among the Indian languages, by the way, Oriya and Punjabi are doing relatively better than Hindi. 

It is not that the policy makers of Wikimedia Foundation are unaware of this. They are aware and they are taking the initiatives to fix the issue. But unless the users wake up to the call to join the movement, the improvement is not possible.

Joining the community of Wikipedia has several benefits that are personal. One gets the opportunity to write, edit, create, collaborate etc. One also acquires the skills of research and critical thinking. But beyond all this one also gets the opportunity to work for a cause that is for humanity. A cause for the knowledge that is free and is intended to be equitable.

And finally why just be a user? Why not become a contributor and try to make it better and better, with whatever one can.

A few tips about editing

Anyone can write for Wikipedia in any major language of the world, by following the guidelines available on its site. One may make edits of spelling, grammar or update the facts in the existing articles. One may also create a new article. But it is advisable to begin by editing the existing ones first. While adding the contents one must bear in mind that the contents are reliable and verifiable. Suitable references are required to support these contents. Before deciding to create an article on a subject one should also make sure that the subject is notable and it has received enough coverage in books, media etc. Otherwise the proposal for the new article may not be accepted. Biographies of living persons are not accepted easily. But Wikipedia seems biased in favour of institutions.

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