Inside Wikipedia

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Context: This is meant to be a primer for discussion for a Masters level course on ‘emerging technologies in education’, but it could be used or adapted for other contexts.

Wikipedia logo

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia which is editable by anyone – its name is taken from a wiki, which is an editable website. Started in January 2001, it is now by far and away the biggest reference work the world has ever produced (over 12 million articles across over 250 individual language projects; over 2.5 million in the English Wikipedia alone). Wikipedia has attracted its share of controversy – with some people praising its open model, and others shunning it as unreliable. This page/resource is to give an account of what happens 'inside Wikipedia'.

Jimmy Wales and the Sausage Factory[edit | edit source]

Writing in an article called "The faith-based encyclopedia", former Encyclopedia Britannica editor, Robert McHenry criticised Wikipedia as unreliable, and likened it to a "public toilet", in which anyone can do whatever they want to it, including vandalise it (McHenry, 2004). Around the same time, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, said that Wikipedia is "like a sausage: you might like the taste of it, but you don't necessarily want to see how it's made" (quoted in Waldman, 2004). Jimmy talks about the product here, rather than the process - though you can see him talking about the process in a video in the resources section.

However, from an educational angle, seeing the process gives us a way of evaluating how Wikipedia works, and how relevant it is for our needs. In order to do this, Jimmy Wales refers to a type of ‘behind the scenes’ look, known as a "sausage factory tour" (e.g. "a sausage factory tour of the legal system".) The following mail from David Gerard to the English Wikipedia mailing list links the question of process with the reliability of the product:

"The scary thing is not how unreliable or not Wikipedia is (and no-one's more aware of that than those of us writing and editing it), but how unreliable everything else is. Anyone who's ever been quoted in a newspaper could only give a hollow laugh at the idea of newspapers automatically being considered "reliable sources." Encyclopedia Britannica is quite the sausage factory, the difference being you can't see inside theirs as you can with ours."

So, the first thing to be aware of Wikipedia is that it isn’t perfect (though it is often very good, and sometimes excellent), but that it is transparent – it is possible to see how it is constructed (though see Finkelstein’s critique in resources section). It’s worth noting here that Wikipedia is open about warning people to be careful when using Wikipedia for academic work – see: w:Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia. But even though Wikipedia is transparent, it is also very complex, and quite difficult to understand – so this page will try to give a flavour of what happens behind what you might immediately see when you look up information on Wikipedia - in a ‘sausage factory tour’ (though we’ll leave the public toilet out of it)...

‘Behind’ the scenes[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia: a work-in-progress[edit | edit source]

A 'warning' template on Wikipedia

Take a look at: w:Wikipedia:Template messages/Cleanup - listing an astounding array of ‘templates’ (notices) that are added to Wikipedia articles (or sections of articles), in order to notify people reading that there may be a problem with this article/section, and people editing that there is work to do on this particular article/section. Of course, a reader can become an editor at any time – many people say that the reason they started editing Wikipedia was because they found something that was wrong, or that they didn’t agree with. (Isn’t this itself an interesting model of how knowledge is built or contributed to? Also, what other resources do you know that have a message such as the one above at the top of their pages?)

Roles and rules[edit | edit source]

'Citation needed' - comic strip by Randall Munroe illustrating Wikipedia's policies (and culture)

There are any number of types of tasks being done on Wikipedia. There are people who write articles (of course), but there are also many people who spend all or most of their time cleaning up articles (see above) - correctign splling and grammer, finding sources for articles (and tidying up reference lists), and addressing bias – or cleaning up structures within Wikipedia, such as its indexing system (using so-called ‘categories’). There are people who scour the wiki’s “recent changes” list, checking for obvious cases of vandalism (eg. deleting pages, or adding obscenities) – and this is dealt with by people who have been chosen by the community to maintain Wikipedia, known as admins (or ‘sysops’), who can delete vandalism pages, and block people from editing temporarily or even permanently. There are people who deal with conflicts between people over articles’ content – mediating disputes between people, and, if necessary, arbitrating over whether a particular person should be blocked from editing because of adding too much biased material, being too hostile with other people, etc. (This, arbitration, is like a mini legal system, with people making statements, citing evidence of how they feel they have been wronged.) There are also people who form taskforces (or ‘WikiProjects’) to develop and improve articles on a given subject (e.g. all Wikipedia articles related to Chemistry and History). Also, some of the work listed above (such as ‘cleanup’ tasks) isn’t done by people, but by pieces of software – or ‘bots’ – written by people to avoid having to carry out repetitive, mundane tasks!

It is worth noting that none of the above tasks are carried out by paid staff – all of this is done by volunteers who want to improve Wikipedia, and who consider themselves part of the community. It should also be noted that anyone can take on any of these roles – most roles on Wikipedia are self-selected’ - though some, like admins and the arbitration committee are elected by the community.

So, there are working processes in Wikipedia – and these are carried out in relation to policies and guidelines. There are hundreds of policies on Wikipedia (at least in the English Wikipedia) – some central policies including “Neutral Point of View” (NPOV), meaning that articles should be written from an unbiased perspective; “Verifiability”, meaning that articles and statements should be backed up by reliable sources; and “No Original Research”, meaning that statements/claims on Wikipedia must simply report statements/claims from other sources, and cannot be an original analysis or synthesis of a set of statements. (See references section for links.)

Technological features[edit | edit source]

All articles on Wikipedia have an associated discussion page (usually referred to as a "talk page") – which allow people to discuss aspects of the article, e.g. how it should present its topic, any problems with bias, whether it could be enhanced by images, etc. In order to keep track of what’s happening on a wiki, there is a recent changes page which lists all recent changes across the whole wiki (in the English Wikipedia, there are often hundreds of edits each minute), with the most recent first. There are also ways for people to select articles that they are interested in, and to track recent changes just within these articles – this feature is called a watchlist. (The watchlist becomes a tool to pick up on biased statements, as well as more subtle types of vandalism - e.g. people adding deliberately false information that appears at first glance to be ok, such as what happened to John Seigenthaler.)

A "diff" allows you to see the difference between two versions of a page.

Every time a page is edited, it creates a new version of a page, and saves it on top of the last version. This means that it is possible to track how an article has been edited through time, and by whom - by looking at the "diff" between versions of a page. Every single edit and every single version of a page is recorded in the page’s history, which can be found beside the edit button – this is a key component of Wikipedia’s transparency.

As well as people writing software that works ‘on top’ of Wikipedia (already mentioned), a major point about the technology on which Wikipedia runs is that it is open source – meaning that it can be freely downloaded, distributed, and modified – and that modifications to the software also have to be released with the same freedoms. In other words, if you are technologically capable enough, you can write code for the software, and add functionality to the software that everyone else can use. Similarly, the content of Wikipedia is free to be reused and modified in other contexts (for example, you can use a photo from Wikipedia on the cover of a book you publish, providing you at least say where you got the photo from.) This stance for open source/content has also set a lot of the cultural background to Wikipedia – attracting people interested in making things freely available, outside of the control of ‘big business’ – and people often call this the ‘free culture movement’ (Lessig, 2004).

More on culture[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia is based on collaboration, which is based in discussion. Everything on Wikipedia is editable and discussable – though not everything in Wikipedia is discussed, since people are encouraged to “be bold” and just edit (and if someone sees/thinks that someone is acting outside of policy/guidelines, they can bring it up for discussion with that person and/or other members of the community). Whenever there is a decision to be made, it is done by seeking consensus on the issue. A core principle here is civility – to strive to listen to and be patient with others, and to try to “assume good faith”, even if you think they are wrong. This culture of collaboration, discussion, and being both civil and bold can be thought of as composing the "wiki way".

Wisdom of the crowds? Smart mobs? Mobocracy?[edit | edit source]

There is a “million monkeys” view of Wikipedia - that it is made through people adding bits of information seemingly at random, or purely according to their own desires (Forte & Bruckman, 2008). People can add anything they like, and people often do add information without coordinating with others, but there is more to Wikipedia than the dumb, drone-like “hive mind”. (See the article by Kevin Kelly, and the responses to Jaron Lanier's article, in the resources section.) Also, where there are people, there are inevitably social problems – see, for example, the case of a blogger subjected to ‘cyber-bullying’, and response from the editor. Even though this was not a case about Wikipedia, it reflects on the features of open publishing spaces, like Wikipedia, as well as the discourses they generate.

Discussion[edit | edit source]

  • How might Wikipedia’s technological features help someone read Wikipedia critically?
  • What implications does all the information on this page have for the construction of knowledge?
  • Apart from using it to find information, how might Wikipedia be a tool for learning? How might the nature of Wikipedia be used as a pedagogical opportunity? (For more on this, see the article by Jenkins in resources section.)
  • Is it possible to present a neutral point of view? Why do you think it is such an “absolute and non-negotiable” policy on Wikipedia? (See: What are the educational implications of this; is it desirable for teachers/students to have a neutral point of view?

Resources and further reading[edit | edit source]

Henry Jenkins – What Wikipedia can teach us about the new media literacies (part one)

Jimmy Wales on Wikipedia - short video and more detailed video

Kevin Kelly – The bottom is not enough

Jaron Lanier's article on 'Digital Maoism'. (See also responses to Lanier)

Seth Finkelstein – Inside, Wikipedia is more like a sweatshop than Santa’s workshop - an article which questions Wikipedia’s transparency

Dirk Riehle - How and Why Wikipedia Works: An Interview with Angela Beesley, Elisabeth Bauer, and Kizu Naoko'

Fernanda Viégas, Martin Wattenberg, & Matthew McKeon - The Hidden Order of Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Beneath the surface - a good video which covers much of the content of this page.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Forte, A., Bruckman, A. (2008) Learning information literacy in the age of Wikipedia. International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Utrecht, Netherlands

Lessig, L (2004) Free culture, Penguin. Retrieved from

McHenry, R. (2004) The faith-based encyclopedia, TCS daily, 15th November 2004. Retrieved from

Waldman, S. (2004) Who knows? The Guardian, 26th October, 2004. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2008) Wikipedia:Neutral point of view,

Wikipedia (2008) Wikipedia:Verifiability,

Wikipedia (2008) Wikipedia:No original research,

Wikipedia (2008) Wikipedia:Researching with Wikipedia,