Human Interest


I use Wikipedia nearly every day. Just about anyone with a public persona has a biographical sketch online at Wikipedia. Just about any subject, or any event of note, has an article about it on Wikipedia. On occasion, I’ve come across someone they missed, but not very often. I like their chronologically-oriented format, but also particularly like the “Personal Life” section of bios.

Wikipedia calls itself an online encyclopedia, and in some ways it is. When the World-Wide-Web, better known as the Internet, was first in use, many brilliant minds were committed to developing and maintaining an online encyclopedia. This new internet thing was perfectly suited to be used for searching for needed information. Over several years, various iterations of web-based encyclopedias emerged. Ultimately, Wikipedia found itself rising to the top, but not without a bumpy ride.  

Wikipedia was first published in January, 2001, and was very slow to evolve. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, two grad students who conceived the idea, were the initial contributors of content for the site, but the process went very slowly: only 12 articles were written during the first year before the launch. To speed up the process, Wales and Sanger announced their project on other information sites and lured away writers from other similar projects. They also accepted content from volunteer contributors. Wikipedia content increased rapidly, thereafter. By February, 2001, they had 1000 articles, by September, 10,000, and reached 40,000 in August, 2002.

Early on, information for articles was found from old, even obsolete, encyclopedias or other reference sources. Wikipedia expanded internationally and was translated into hundreds of languages. Money and control of contributors and content became a problem, however, and Wales and Sanger had different ideas for their roles in management of the site. Differences of opinion about how to handle contributing experts and how to organize and present information caused a split, and Sanger left. He went on to start several other websites similar to Wikipedia, but Wales stayed at Wikipedia and always considered Sanger a subordinate. They are historically noted as co-founders, however.

Today, Wikipedia has millions of entries. These are not without controversy, though. Wikipedia is constantly under scrutiny for “factual reliability.” Researchers, teachers, journalists, and public officials have “not considered it as a reliable source of information.” Anyone can contribute information, and that includes partisans, trolls, and people who write falsehoods. Discerning fact from fiction can be a problem so many people doubt the accuracy of much of the information. One man, Stephen Pruitt, has submitted information for 33,000 articles and has made 5 million edits. Who is he and what are his qualifications? According to a CBS News article, he lives with his parents and worked for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department until last year. He is alleged to have written nearly one-third of the articles on Wikipedia. There are paid editors at Wikipedia, but many contributors, like Pruitt, are not. 

Anyone can edit a Wikipedia entry. That includes “vandals” who write defamatory, untrue, or malicious content. An example is the phrase, “get a life, loser!” added in response to a comment written about the use of a product. Accusations of political bias are common, too. In the historical account written for and by Wikipedia, dozens of examples of inaccuracy, defamatory comments, or just plain misleading information are written.

Dr. G’s Opinion: I’ve used Wikipedia many hundreds of times. I’ve yet to find information I questioned as factual or politically biased. Maybe that’s because I look up mainstream, run-of-the-mill, uncontroversial people or subjects that don’t stir the waters. “Common folk” don’t garner the attention of a Donald Trump or Tony Fauci, so their articles can be assumed to be factual. I think we do have to be cautious about Wikipedia, especially when it pertains to high-profile people who have loyal disciples and vitriolic haters. Usually, readers know which type of person has written the article. I don’t know why Wikipedia allows anyone to edit an article at any time, though. I’m sure Wikipedia has some paid contributors, but the “company” needs to increase revenue to afford a staff of expert writers who are the only legitimate site contributors. 

Additionally, If you’re calling yourself an online encyclopedia, it would seem important to be as careful of accuracy as possible. In one of the references I read, someone actually warned that “some articles are scholarly, but some are rubbish….Wikipedia is not a reliable source….Do not use Wikipedia to make critical decisions.” Wikipedia “does not publish original research. It’s content is determined by previously published information….and… doesn’t consider itself to be reliable as a source and discourages readers from using it in academic or research settings.”

I do enjoy reading Wikipedia articles and find them very interesting. As I said previously, I haven’t encountered any information I considered libelous or blatantly false. Like anything you can randomly “Google,” however, it is wise to double check to be sure of accuracy. One figure I found was Wikipedia is accurate only 80% of the time. So one-fifth of the time they err. I don’t understand why they’ve chosen this approach. It appears they decided not to take the time to verify the information they present just for expediency. How sloppy and slip shod is that? 

Wikipedia is free, easy to access, and interesting to read, but when they say so-and-so was a clandestine member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, you’d better check it out!

References: I “googled” “The History of Wikipedia,” “Does Wikipedia Fact Check,” and “Accuracy and Reliability of Wikipedia.” All data and facts were found in these references. 

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