This month Wikipedia celebrates its sixth birthday. Earlier this month the number of articles in English on Wikipedia crossed 1.5 million (the number stands at 1,578,633 as of this writing). This number grows by almost 2000 every single day. Compared to this the number of articles in Encyclopedia Britannica (over 122,264) is a far cry. More than a million people visit Wikipedia every day (more than half of whom visit the English language pages). 5 out of every 100 internet users visit Wikipedia daily. Only 11 other sites are visited by more people. Wikipedia is very often at the top of Google search results (almost always in the top 10 results) for things ranging from ideologies (communism - 1, capitalism - 1); sports (cricket - 2, football - 3); sciences (economics - 1, literature - 3); places (India - 1, France - 1, Budapest - 2); people (Sachin Tendulkar - 1, Einstein - 2); objects (water - 2, chair - 1).
Many things are taking place here. On the one hand, articles are being created at a rate, depth, and detail, which are utterly unprecedented. For instance, Wikipedia has detailed and easily accessible articles about "Triskaidekaphobia" and "Perfidious Albion" while a careful search did not reveal any relevant articles in Britannica. On the other hand, more and more people are consulting, quoting, referring to Wikipedia on any number of issues. It is rare to see a blog post these days which does not link to Wikipedia for the background info on some topic. This is the reason for the high Google page rank for the Wikipedia entries on any issue under the sun.
We notice then a couple of reasons for this mammoth phenomenon: extensiveness of the topics covered and the easy accessibility. Needless to say, an enormous amount of technical expertise went into achieving these qualities. Whether in allowing thousands of users to easily create and edit articles, or in enabling effective interlinking among articles, or in "redirecting", this expertise is clearly noticeable. But the real point of Wikipedia is this: its success is truly as much a matter of its millions of faceless users as of its creators. Perhaps more importantly, so are its drawbacks.
Wikipedia's more than six million articles in all languages are created by registered users and they are edited by any user, not necessarily registered. To register, one simply needs to pick a login name and password. An email address is not necessary. More than three million "Wikipedians", or registered users, edited articles at least 10 times since the time they registered. 80,000 of these edit at least 5 times every month and 10,000 edit at least 100 times a month.
It is not often the case that one single person has all (or even most) of the information on a topic. The success of Wikipedia lies in bringing together thousands of people (who think they have something to contribute on a particular topic) and enabling them to easily add their knowledge to the common pool. For instance, a look at the history page for the article on England informs us that it was created on 23 November 2001 by a user called Derek Ross with a tiny amount of information. Since then it has gone through 6398 edits, as of this writing, to become what it is today. For the last six months, every month there are roughly 500 edits on this article. So all these thousands of people are persuaded to spend their valuable time on adding to/refining/correcting/vandalising this article and without their contribution there would be no Wikipedia.
The last verb above, vandalising, is important. A glance at the history page again tells us that a number of the 6398 edits of the article on England have merely "reverted vandalism". Vandalism may or may not be intentional. But its effect is to make an article erroneous. However, tt is an enormously difficult task to define errors. Except in the case of a few easy factual errors, it is not at all clear how to define an error. This is where the most crucial problem with Wikipedia for me arises. It completely sidesteps the issue of authenticity.
I did a little experiment on this. On the morning of 8th January, 2007 I made the following two changes on Wikipedia:
1. On its page for existentialism, I changed the first sentence from "Existentialism is a philosophical movement that deals with human freedom" to "Existentialism is a philosophical movement that deals with human existence".
2. On its page for Sigrid Undset, in the first sentence I changed the year when she got Nobel prize in literature from 1928 (correct) to 1927 (incorrect).
As of this writing (12th January) both changes remain.
The first change is certainly more involved. As far as I know, it is misleading to say that existentialism deals with human freedom. It deals with human freedom also. But this is not the first sentence one writes on the topic. (Indeed, the whole article in wikipedia is unsatisfactory. I would definitely prefer this article on Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Of course, what I wrote is more misleading. But surely, thousands of people since 8th January have read the first sentence and retained only that confusing piece of information.
The second is more straightforward. It alarms me that no one has corrected it yet. A Google search on Sigrid Undet returns the Wikipedia page as the third result. Many people would click on this ahead of the first two results. It is conceivable that lots of people have looked at this page in the last five days and went away with the wrong information. A little bit of checking (indeed, even reading the Wikipedia page till the end) would correct them. But of course few people would actually check.
It will be interesting to see how long it will be before these changes are reverted.
This is the crux of the Wikipedia phenomenon: it pays no attention to the matter of expertise. A teenager sitting in her home in a remote village in China with an internet connection has as much weight and scope to expound on the causes and effects of the Great Depression as the renowned expert at Harvard who has spent a life time thinking about the subject. This is in itself neither disturbing nor comforting. There are contexts where it may be either.
Personally, I would not look at (or at least be very suspicious of) Wikipedia on many topics (like existentialism). On factual issues (like the dates, numbers etc) I would definitely confirm them if I am making serious use of those facts. In spite of these reservations, I am convinced that Wikipedia is a great tool with unlimited scope.
Wikipedia is an amazing possibility let loose on the world wide web, for anyone connected to explore. It is a curious entity: full of wonderful things, but never really able to deny the threat of a fatal flaw somewhere. The ironical thing about Wikipedia is that its greatness can not exist without the possibility that that greatness is flawed. If you try to remove one the other goes too.