Wikipedia is the free online encyclopedia that, as of January, 2008, comprises of over 2,700,000 articles. The revolutionary concept behind Wikipedia, though, is not that it is a free Internet dictionary, or that it contains such a vast amount of information.
Wikipedia is the encyclopedia “that anyone can edit.” As a result of this new concept, many studies have been conducted regarding the accuracy of Wikipedia. Most studies conclude that Wikipedia is roughly as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica. For example, a December 2005 study by the science journalism magazine Nature concluded that there were 1.3 errors in Wikipedia entries for every one error in Britannica entries. However, when considering only “serious” errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, the study found a 1 to 1 ratio of errors in the competing encyclopedias.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wikipedia, though, lies in the question of where the information actually comes from. Who, exactly, is responsible for the majority of Wikipedia’s entries? Are there really millions of anonymous users contributing tiny bits of information to articles, eventually amounting to the Wikipedia we have come to know? Surely there must be millions of entries in Wikipedia written by folks who lack the writing skill God gave pistachio nuts. How, then, does Wikipedia’s content maintain such high levels of accuracy?
Wikipedia founder and Auburn University alumni Jim Wales recently spoke to Stanford University on this subject. It turns out that, yes, millions of different users are responsible for Wikipedia’s content. Yet, there is an “insider” community of users, a “Lords of Wikipedia,” who believe themselves responsible for Wikipedia’s success. For example, the Wikipedia article on Alan Alda has a history of over 1,700 edits. Despite so many edits, less than 100 edits actually added substantial information to the article. Most of those edits were, as Jim Wales described, made by different people. The remaining edits (about 1,600) only dealt with formatting and grammar, and they were made by less than a dozen different users.
In fact, if you take the 10 users who edited the Alan Alda article for grammar and formatting the most number of times, these same users are responsible for a collective 100,000 edits across the entire Wikipedia site.
The sordid world of Wikipedia becomes clear: a user makes an edit to an article to add a chunk of information, and a die-hard community of insiders then makes several edits for grammar and clarity.
Jim Wales admits that, despite some 60 million Wikipedia users, over 50% of the edits are done by only 524 users.
Thus, within the world of Wikipedia, there exists a small group of rogue editors who, quite literally, have dedicated themselves to editing all human knowledge. Wales even closed his speech at Stanford with this remark: “I spend a lot of time listening to those four or five hundred editors.”
The major force behind the success of Wikipedia, the most advanced collaborative project in the history of the World Wide Web, is a clandestine group of keyboard-beholden editors, forever writing and editing the history (and, maybe, the future) of the world.