Whether you want to know more than you’d ever want to about the Yuuzhan Vong from “Star Wars” or brush up on your World War II history, Wikipedia finds itself as the first stop for research, topping Alexa’s global website rankings at No. 6.
Wikipedia is known as the free encyclopedia anyone can edit. The “anyone can edit” part usually discounts its credibility even though, in a study by the journal Nature, it was determined to be as factual as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The study had experts compare articles from both sources without knowing what came from where. In terms of factual errors, omissions, misleading statements, etc., Wikipedia had 162 of these, while Encyclopedia Britannica came to a total of 123 errors. So should your professor be as concerned about Wikipedia if it is on par with Encyclopedia Britannica?
The answer to that is “yes.” Because anyone can edit Wikipedia entries, it seems like a cause for concern. Wikipedia’s fault lies in the nature of its hardcore user-base that writes and edits articles and their behavior.
However, while in theory everyone can edit, the case more often is not everyone can edit, despite what is claimed. On every article sits the often ignored talk page. Wikipedia’s talk pages are designed for discussion on improving articles and making them as factual and neutral as possible. This works most of the time, but other times talk pages often descend into flame and cause edit wars on articles.
One example of absurd behavior on talk pages can be seen on the one for aluminum, and a debate on how the word should be spelled leads to one user invoking Hitler in his argument on the word’s spelling. While this is a fairly tame example of Wikipedia’s community misbehavior, it is just one fraction of a bigger problem.
Many Wiki admins and veteran users are quick to shutdown new users using a lot of the site’s jargon and shorthand. New editors are called SPA, or Single Purpose Accounts, which can be hard to disapprove when new to the site and editing.
Some users go as far as “claiming” articles despite the fact that the site says no user owns an article. This is one of many criticisms that one of the site founders, Larry Sanger, lists on a post titled “What are Wikipedia’s Flaws?” on quora.com, a question answering website. In one example, users can also be seen talking to banned users on the site asking them if there are any changes they wish to be made to articles.
“Sorry that you died again,” said one Wikipedia user. “My email is enabled, so if you need something specific changed on a specific article, contact me and I’ll review the merits on my own per WP:BAN and consider making the edit myself based on my independent and fully formed review of your proposals and stuff.”
Though while this seems fairly innocuous, it borders on what Wikipedia calls “meat puppetry,” which is soliciting others to enter Wikipedia and influence the editorial process.
Wikipedia’s flaw of individual users having too much power can be seen on a recent article deletion after over seven years about Cultural Marxism.
The main Wiki user in favor of this article’s deletion is a self-identified Marxist. The article described and explained the theory’s origins, founders and its use in Marxist critical theory in a fairly unbiased manner. The original article refers to Cultural Marxism as “A school or offshoot of Marxism that conceives of culture as central to the legitimacy of oppression in addition to the economic factors that Karl Marx emphasized.”
After the article was deleted, “Cultural Marxism” redirected users to a page titled “Frankfurt School Conspiracy,” which contained more biased text compared to its predecessor.
This article has now since been deleted.
Now searching the term redirects the user to the Frankfurt School but the only mention of the theory is explained as “a notable 21st century conspiracy theory,” regarding the Frankfurt School as the origin of a contemporary movement in the political left to subvert traditional western cultural norms.
The turmoil over the deletion of this article got so heated that Jimmy Wales, the site’s co-founder, stepped in and restored the article, calling for more discussion after which the article was nominated for deletion again and is once again gone. Outside of this incident, in a Slate article titled “Encyclopedia Frown,” David Auerbach goes into more details of the bureaucracy of Wikipedia and its community’s toxic behavior.
This toxic behavior can be seen in its lack of consistency as observed in all of the changes made to the Cultural Marxism entry and the debate over the spelling of aluminum.
Though Wikipedia is an awesome idea in theory, and most of the time in practice, it still has a long way to go in order to be considered reliable. While it’s good for a quick glance on the number of episodes of “Breaking Bad,” measurable facts or a quick rundown on historical events, it’s best to listen to your professors and other scholars and not fully rely on Wikipedia.
Email Luis Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org