Why all the hate for Wikipedia?

By Greg Stevens on November 4th, 2013

At the time of writing, Wikipedia identifies 114,866 articles as being incomplete and in need of expansion. Of the 999 articles currently identified by Wikipedia as “Vital Articles” that any respectable encyclopedia should have, 285 are marked as “Class-C” on their quality scale, 85 are marked as “Start class”, and one article is marked as a “Stub”, bringing the total number of articles ranking below a “B-class” rating to just over one third.

Beyond these statistics, we have anecdotal complaints of the “bullying” of volunteer contributors, griping about the difficulty of the mark-up language used to create articles, and the fact that celebrities and other public figures must constantly monitor their pages to prevent unwanted and often fictional updates to their profiles concerning their past histories, their love lives or their genital size. Put it all together, and the whole Wikipedia project seems to be little more than a garbage bin of false and incomplete information.

The most recent chatter about Wikipedia, including a long article in the forthcoming issue of MIT Technology Review, points to the decline of its population of active editors, which has been gradually decreasing since 2007. The number and length of articles on Wikipedia continues to grow, and with the media reporting anecdotal stories of editors feeling overworked and overburdened, the natural conclusion is that something must be terribly wrong with the entire system.

In fact, the media has been reporting the demise of Wikipedia annually since 2007. The voices bleating the loudest have also tended to be the ones that have been gunning for the death of Wikipedia since its genesis. The entire driving concept behind Wikipedia rubs a certain set of academics, librarians and industry professionals the wrong way. It is really no surprise, then, that the derision of Wikipedia has become something of a sport over the past decade.

But is it justified?

What is Wikipedia trying to be?

Wikipedia is the iconic example of a system that works in practice but not in theory. From the beginning, it was an ideological crusade: an attempt to demonstrate that something real, profound, and important could be created by volunteers acting purely out of the goodness of their own hearts, and with the desire to create something for the benefit of humanity.

And yet, from the beginning, experts scoffed at Wikipedia as a ridiculous endeavor. More than a decade later, despite all the gripes and groans, Wikipedia has managed to become a reasonably reliable source of information for a reasonably large set of topics that it explores to a reasonable, if generally introductory, depth.

Much hay has been made over the unevenness of coverage across different topic areas, but the fact remains that on a broad spectrum of subjects – from science to literature to history – a student or novice reader can get the basics on almost any topic he or she might want, and can usually get a list of references for where to find more information.

It should also be said that Wikipedia has never been envisioned as something that would reach the status of “complete”. It has always been billed as a “work in progress”, and its stated goal to “compile all human knowledge” is facetious: everyone knows that human knowledge is constantly growing and expanding, so the compilation of “all human knowledge” is not a benchmark that is attainable.

It’s a marketing slogan, not an aspiration.

As a tool for discovering how to find out more on any topic, Wikipedia is unequalled on the web. Even in those areas where it is considered incomplete, it often provides at least basic definitions and information, as well as references to further reading material that has been written by authoritative sources.

This is how Wikipedia was always meant to be, by the way: a secondary source of information that points to primary sources for further reading. One of the most common criticisms of Wikipedia has been that students try to learn everything on a topic simply by reading the Wikipedia article. But this has always been nothing more than “user error”: it is not rightfully a criticism of the Wikipedia project itself.

A student doing research on Queen Elizabeth I can discover in the Wikipedia article that some historians have characterised her as short-tempered and indecisive. A good student will note that this fact is cited as coming from a book by Anne Somerset published in 2003, and will go to the library and check out that book. A lazy student will cite Wikipedia and call it a day.

Like the famous Cliff’s Notes publication series, Wikipedia can be abused by students who are lazy or sloppy. But that doesn’t mean that either Cliff’s Notes or Wikipedia are useless, bad or incomplete; it only means that lazy people sometimes use them incorrectly. Neither one was ever intended to be a primary or authoritative source of information.

The perfect solution fallacy

In addition to the criticism of “lack of authority”, Wikipedia also is often criticized for its lack of completeness. Indeed, as already mentioned, there seem to be a great number of missing or incomplete articles in Wikipedia, even as measured by their own standards.

Yet a closer look at these “standards” may leave the casual observer to wonder what the fuss is all about. Consider, for example, some of the articles on the “in need of expansion” list.

The List of windmills in Anglesey is flagged as requiring expansion. Perhaps the deficiency of the article would be more obvious to an aficionado of Welsh windmills, but to the casual browsing observer the article is likely to appear to be as complete as necessary. How much detail is needed, really, in a list of windmills?

Similarly, the entry on the stanza is identified as a “stub”, which is Wikipedia’s term for an extremely short “starter” article that is in need of fleshing out. Indeed, the article clocks in at less than 200 words, yet one wonders exactly how much needs to be said about a term whose definition is “a grouped set of lines within a poem”.

Other articles appear to be designated as “in need of expansion” for purely book-keeping or stylistic reasons. The section on coffee on the Agriculture in Brazil page is marked as incomplete, even though it contains a link to an entire separate page on the topic of coffee production in Brazil. Some articles contain a great deal of detail, but are marked as needing improvement because they lack an introductory paragraph.

The article on Artificial Vagina is flagged as needing expansion due to its lack of inline citations. The completeness of the information, however, seems difficult to contest.

There is an entire list of articles for specific events in specific places on specific years, for example: 1225 in Ireland, 1226 in Ireland, 1227 in Ireland, and so on. Each of these exists as a separate page, and each page has some content. That content, however, is minimal, thus each page is deemed “incomplete”.

Of course, these examples are cherry-picking some of the silliest examples. None of this is meant to imply that there are not serious articles that suffer from serious problems of incompleteness. It is, however, meant to raise an important question. When critics cry that Wikipedia is “incomplete”, one has to ask: what, exactly, would a complete Wikipedia look like?

In the shade

A popular way to evaluate Wikipedia is to compare it with professionally produced “classical” encyclopedias, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Indeed, there have been a number of studies that have made such comparisons. The results have been inconclusive. In many cases, Encyclopedia Britannica has been found to contain just as many inaccuracies as Wikipedia.

(If you are interested in investigating some of these studies further, a convenient list of them can be found in the Wikipedia article on the reliability of Wikipedia.)

Cross-cultural scrutiny, and other similar evaluations that might be described as falling under the umbrella of “political correctness”, are also often brought to bear on Wikipedia. A number of commentators have observed that the editing population of the English-language version of Wikipedia is very Western and very male, and the coverage of topics and point of view of many of the articles reflects this fact.

It is laudable that Wikipedia is trying to correct this problem by trying to recruit editors with more diverse perspectives and areas of expertise. And this policy sets a much higher standard for Wikipedia than that traditionally set for publications like Britannica.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that the Wikipedia community of editors already holds itself to a much higher standard than traditional encyclopedias in this regard. The Wikipedia article on Comics, for example, is given a lowly C-class quality rating by the Wikipedia community, with a great deal of discussion over whether it contains too much Western bias, and what historical and cross-cultural art forms should fall under the term “comic”.

All of this debate rages, despite the fact that the article itself already contains special sections discussing American and English comics, Franco-Belgian comics and Japanese comics. The last section even contains a link to a separate 4,000+ word article on the history of manga.

The Britannica entry on Graphic Novels, on the other hand, mentions manga once, in passing, as an example of graphic novels in “other cultures”.

This is why it is particularly misleading when experts in a particular field target a specific article within their area of expertise, and nit-pick the completeness based on their own extremely in-depth knowledge.

How can the article on Trinitarianism possibly not mention the epic debate between John Calvin and Michael Servetus? Why does the article on testing procedures for bioplastic materials not mention testing method ASTM D5511, which tests for anaerobic biodegradation within a device called a high-solids anaerobic digestion unit?

Why doesn’t the article on gnosticism discuss the contrast between the rejection of the world by so-called “negative gnostic philosophy” and the embracing of material experience by “positive gnosticism”?

The fact is that no encyclopedia has ever been held to that standard of perfection. No encyclopedia has ever been deemed “incomplete” because it failed to satisfy the details of every expert in every field. Print encyclopedias have always needed to find a place to draw the line for completeness.

The big difference with Wikipedia is simply that a community of volunteers gets to decide where the line is, instead of a board or a steering committee, and that Wikipedia is always a work in progress that is continually improving.

What can you expect?

There are real limitations in Wikipedia. There are some areas where the information is truly lacking, and the fault for this lies in the problem of volunteer participation. The thoroughness of the content in Wikipedia articles is a perfect reflection of the topics that are appealing to the types of people who participate in online collaboration projects.

Wikipedia is trying to fix this. But short of offering to pay experts to write “authoritative articles”, these efforts are almost certain to fail. The problem isn’t the difficulty of the user interface. The problem isn’t that the rules for writing and editing are too complicated. The problem isn’t that existing editors are “mean” to newcomers. All of these observations have been offered as “reasons” for the lack of new articles on missing topic areas.

The real problem is simply self-selection: the articles that are most complete are the ones of interest to the sorts of people who like tinkering around and making stuff on the internet. That is a particular personality type, or at least it is a set of personality types. As a result, some topics will be over-represented and some under-represented.

This should come as no surprise.

Wikipedia has been an experiment in ideology: the idea that something robust and functional could be built by a large population on a purely volunteer basis. This is the philosophy behind the Star Trek economy, in which nobody is paid but starships are built because individuals simply have a desire to better the human condition.

What does the actual implementation of Wikipedia teach us about Star Trek-style economics? It teaches us that the Enterprise would never be built, because five million people would volunteer to design the layout of the bridge, and nobody would volunteer to build the toilets.

Is Wikipedia dying?

Luckily, Wikipedia does not need to navigate between the stars. After more than a decade of watching the growth of Wikipedia on the internet, we have learned something about its limitation. We have learned that we can turn to it for some topics, but not others. We have learned a broader lesson about the limitations of a volunteer army of workers.

But do not listen to the hype and the puffery about Wikipedia dying. It will continue to grow, because human knowledge is always growing. It will continue to refine and improve itself. Who knows? Some day some geeky, techy expert in the history of sub-Saharan African cultures may even spend the time to fill in some of the gaps in the coverage that Wikipedia provides.

But whether that happens or not, Wikipedia will continue to be a good, reliable source of information on many, many topics for a great number of people for many years to come.