Why the Many are smarter than the Few

WikipediaOf all the tools that are shaping our new information landscape, perhaps none is more controversial than Wikipedia. As an encyclopedia that can be written and edited by anyone, it certainly attracts its fair share of skepticism.  There are even some educators who refuse to allow their students to use Wikipedia as a research source, claiming that there is no verifiable level of authority in its articles and that it is far too easy for it to contain information that is inaccurate, misleading or just plain wrong. They argue that students should not trust an encyclopedia written by just anyone.

Others take a more positive view, believing that the overall level of quality in Wikipedia is as good, and possibly better, than commercially available encyclopedia products created by qualified professionals.

Both viewpoints are, to some extent, valid. It’s true that Wikipedia has the potential to be full of errors, silly facts and misinformation, and that anyone, even an anonymous user, can edit a Wikipedia article, changing facts and adding spurious nonsense.  And yet, a casual glance through Wikipedia reveals a collection of information far more detailed, sophisticated and nuanced than its method of creation might suggest is possible.

We need to teach our students to critically assess their use of resources like Wikipedia rather than just declare it “bad” and not use it. The issue is not really whether Wikipedia might have a few inaccuracies – the issue is how do we teach our students to be astute users of ANY resource, not just Wikipedia.

Firstly, it is important to understand what a wiki actually is, and how articles are created. Essentially, a wiki is a collection of webpages that are read/write enabled, meaning that users can, if they have the appropriate permissions, edit each page. This ability to live-edit pages enables a wiki to be a dynamic, constantly-evolving, highly-scalable resource that is easy to keep current. Wikipedia is built on an industrial strength wiki tool called MediaWiki, and it is this ability to be easily edited by anyone that is Wikipedia’s biggest strength over static printed resources like traditional encyclopedias.

Wikipedia started life in 2001 as an offshoot of the Nupedia Project, and has grown to become the largest single constantly-updated encyclopedic source on the planet, containing well over 12 million articles on all manner of topics, with nearly 3 million of those in English. Many of these articles are written on extremely niche topics, and in terms of its overall depth, detail and ability to stay up-to-date, Wikipedia has few equals.

It is important to understand that the articles in Wikipedia are generally created and maintained by people with a vested interest in their chosen subject areas. This means they generally care deeply about the articles they edit, whether that means adding content, cross referencing facts to verifiable sources or just correcting spelling and grammar.  Where errors or page-vandalism occurs, mistakes are generally fixed quickly by the “keepers” of those pages. Despite the concerns that pages can be vandalised, it needs to be remembered that pages can be fixed even more easily, and that there are always far more people who keep them fixed than people who vandalise them.

Most Wikipedia articles are not written by a single person. In fact, most Wikipedia articles are written and co-edited by dozens, if not hundreds of different authors. Although it might seem like having so many people contributing to a single article could see it quickly descend into chaos, in practice it is the wide diversity of viewpoints that actually helps Wikipedia reach a consensus of truth, and helps achieve its all-important Neutral Point of View (NPOV).  Every article is accompanied by a Discussion page and a History page.

Any time a single author expresses an idea, he or she exhibits some degree of personal bias. The strength of Wikipedia’ Discussion page is that it facilitates debate and is a place where each writer’s interpretation of the facts can be thrashed out and argued. According to Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, an article approaches the truth when the arguments about what constitutes the truth finally subside.  The Discussions page helps Wikipedia zero in on truth and neutrality, while the History page keeps track of every change made to each article.

As an example, take a look at the Wikipedia article about the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.  Both the event and the first Wikipedia entry about the event happened on the same date, April 16, 2007… in other words, the article was being written as the event actually unfolded. The development of the article can be traced by using the revisions list on the History page, where it is possible to see how the article actually grew minute by minute.

It began with two simple sentences, “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16th, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain.” Three minutes later, the second sentence was amended to read “The Virginia Tech shooting incident occurred on April 16, 2007. One person has been reported to be slain and one person is reported wounded.” The next revision came 2 minutes later where a citation link to a newspaper report was added. 7 minutes later, someone else corrected a minor grammatical error. The article quickly continued to grow in this manner, with over 100 edits taking place in the next few hours, each one improving upon or correcting the one before it. There was a clearly evident group of people whose names keep appearing in the edit history list, demonstrating how some people emerge to become the “keepers” of these articles. This is a completely organic process. No one is elected to be in charge. No one has to hold a meeting to delegate responsibility. It just works.

The article has now been edited over 500 times, with each revision building on the one before it. Reading the article as it currently stands reveals a high standard of writing with each fact hyperlinked to actual news stories. The article appears to be of a quality and standard that one would expect in a “real” encyclopedia.
Many people who are critical of Wikipedia don’t seem to fully understand the community behind each article. Their assumption is often that articles are spuriously written by individuals wishing to cause trouble by spreading misinformation. They sometimes miss the point that articles are written by large groups of people who, through a process of self governance and wisdom-of-crowds thinking, manage to refine and evolve high quality articles through a process of constant iteration. Articles written using a wiki are never truly “finished”, but as each article matures, many hundreds of people have often contributed to it and thousands of eyes have looked at it. How long could a spurious edit or a damaged paragraph really last? Would the volunteer army that helped create this information truly stand idly by and allow their work to be ruined by fools or vandals?

Over the last few years there have been a couple of high profile media reports of inaccuracies in Wikipedia. The nature of a wiki – in that they can be edited by anyone – is such that inaccuracies can and sometimes do occur. There is no dispute about that. However, those few cases of reported inaccuracies need to be placed in their proper perspective of over 12 million current articles, most of which are highly relevant and incredibly accurate.

Despite the apparent potential for biased, vandalised or just plain wrong information, the overall accuracy levels of Wikipedia remain extremely high for the vast majority of articles it contains, and the fact that it is constantly updated means it can offer content that cannot be found elsewhere.

It may be true that many students (and many adults too for that matter) find it difficult to detect incorrect or misleading information, but this is as equally true of text found in other sources as it is of Wikipedia. Students should be made aware of the possibility of errors or bias in Wikipedia, just as they need to be aware of errors and bias in all information sources. Rather than being a resource we discourage, perhaps Wikipedia offers educators the best possible environment in which to teach students about this idea of critical analysis of information. At least students can approach Wikipedia with an expectation that there may be errors and keep their guard up.

Still doubtful? Try this exercise… Pick ten subjects in which you consider yourself somewhat of an expert. Look up these subjects in Wikipedia and see how accurate they are, compared to your own knowledge. Try looking up the same ten articles in a traditional encyclopedia.  You may be surprised to find the level of information in Wikipedia to be as good as it is.

And of course, if the information is not as good as you think it could be, you can always click the Edit button and fix it, adding your own personal voice to the vast well of human knowledge that is Wikipedia.

CC BY 4.0 Why the Many are smarter than the Few by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

7 Replies to “Why the Many are smarter than the Few”

  1. Hi Chris
    Thank you so much for this article! I am so happy I came across it today. I must admit that as a teacher I have sometimes been a bit apprehensive about the validity of Wikipedia as a source of information, and whether students should use it at all. The essence, of course, as you rightly point out, is being critical about ANY source of information, and discussing this with students.

    I will definitely refer my students to your blog post to get an insightful and informative dose of what Wikipedia is all about (I certainly learned a lot myself reading your post!). I am also thinking of asking my colleagues to read it, since I and a couple of other teachers are trying to convince the rest to set up a school wiki for democratic school development. The gradual editing process and sharing the knowledge and insights of all those involved sounds much better than the traditional separate committees with only a few members. Your post might change the minds of some of my colleagues, the majority of whom seem to be highly doubtful about the value of wiki-style discussions / decision-making. What you wrote about finding concensus of truth and the importance of diversity of viewpoints is especially valid here, let alone the saved time from sitting at meetings, when colleagues could (ideally!) participate in the discussions, editing, debating etc. when most convenient.

    1. Thanks Sinikka, glad you found the post of use. I’m trying to use Wikis a lot more at my school for policay development… it just makes more sense.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  2. The force of your essay is reduced the moment you incorrectly call Jimmy Wales the “founder” of Wikipedia. Search the Internet for Larry Sanger’s recent “open letter” to Jimbo Wales. Read and learn.

    1. “The force of your essay is reduced” because I loosely used the term founder? So, let me get this straight… because Larry Sanger raises concerns about being left out of the early history of Wikipedia, my “essay” carries less weight? Oh grow up!

      Firstly, Jimbo Wales IS a founder of Wikipedia… he may not, as it turns out, be the only founder, but he most certainly was one of them. So my use of the word “founder” to describe him, while perhaps not telling the full story, is not incorrect and hardly grounds to dismiss the value of the rest of the blog post. (By the way, while we’re splitting hairs, it’s a blog post not an essay)

      Thanks for pointing out the letter from Larry (viewable at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:George_The_Dragon/Larry_Sanger%27s_Open_Letter_To_Jimmy_Wales) but all that aside, do you really think that this fact changes “the force of my essay”.

  3. I have been teaching students about researching techniques (for many years) and so now when Wikipedia is mentioned in class quite a number of students quote “that you can’t use it”. I surprise them when I explain that it an be a valid research tool. Like you, I explain the potential for mistakes (or misuse by some) but that these mistakes are often picked up due to the sheer number of people using and editing Wikipedia. I also stress (as I have always done) that you always need to validate or check on the authority of the information found. It is easier to teach the kids about using more than one source for gathering any information because of all the discussion about the value of Wikipedia. They are finally beginning to develop a greater understanding of biases etc. and it is due to Wikipedia

  4. Hi Chris-
    Just catching up on some school holiday reading and I’ve got to say I loved this blog – when I recently suggested that my 12 year old check something in Wikipedia for a school assignment as a quick first point of reference – both he and my 15 year old daughter said in horror “Mum we aren’t allowed to use it for school stuff” “Why not?” I asked (mentally predicting what the answer would be) – “It’s not reliable!” Prediction confirmed!
    I then spent half an hour or so explaining that of course that it should not be the only source of information, yes it can be vandalised etc etc in mother preaching mode basically listing for them the arguments in your article – just much less eloquently. Of course children don’t believe their mothers(even if they are a teacher-librarian at another school) and they remained unconvinced so the next time this debate comes up – and I’m sure it will – I will be referencing this blog!

    1. Hehe, I’ve had that EXACT same conversation with my own two kids. 🙂

      I was pleased to hear my daughter tell me the other day what happened when one of her teachers chided her for using Wikipedia in class. Kate challenged the teacher about her lack understanding of Wikipedia and explained to this teacher why it was much more reliable than she gave it credit for… that’s my girl. 🙂

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