You use Wikipedia. Somebody asks you what Wikipedia is, and you say, “Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” This is what everyone says, because beyond this simple definition, we (generally) understand very little about what Wikipedia is and how it works. Something that “anyone can edit” can seem very alarming. This often leads people to deem Wikipedia an invalid resource because of the limited depth of our understanding of it. But don’t feel bad; information regarding how the site works, how it’s governed and how its quality is ensured is both complicated and difficult to find. Wikipedia, in and of itself, is complicated (but that doesn’t mean it’s invalid).
A bit on how Wikipedia works:
When a new page is created, it enters a new-page feed for review by the site’s administrators. Most new pages are deleted for various reasons, including non-notability – the topic is not notable enough to have an encyclopedia entry, e.g., your brother (unless, of course, he did something important). In an article published by The Atlantic, historian and writer Marshall Poe details how he attempted to create his own biographical Wikipedia page. Almost immediately, the page came under scrutiny from one of Wikipedia’s administrators, who stated he was not notable enough to have a page. But if you Google Marshall Poe, you’ll notice that he does, in fact, have a Wikipedia page. After the initial challenge to his notability, other Wikipedians did some detective work, ultimately finding that Poe had written several books about early modern Russia.
So a page is created. “Anyone” can edit it? Let’s take the page about oranges, for instance. What will happen if I try to write that oranges are actually blue?
First, the page about oranges is semi-protected, meaning that it can’t be edited by anyone whose Wikipedia account isn’t confirmed or “autoconfirmed” (“at least four days old and has at least ten edits to Wikipedia”). There are lots of different protection levels for pages, including full protection, which only allows administrators (there are fewer than 600 active administrators) editing privileges; these protections are the first line of defense against vandals.
But let’s say I’m autoconfirmed and manage to make the edit. Immediately, the page’s “watchers” will be notified. Wikipedians can add pages to their “watchlists” if they have particular interest in the subject or simply want to volunteer to oversee the page, and they can choose to be notified as soon as the page is modified. The orange article currently has 251 watchers (you can find out the number of watchers for any page by clicking “View History” and then “Number of watchers”), meaning that 251 people (assuming they all chose to receive updates) will receive an email and (like any sane person) immediately revert the page so that it says oranges are orange.
This doesn’t mean that the watchers are necessarily orange experts. It would be close to, if not completely, impossible to have a resident expert for every subject that Wikipedia has a page about. It’s possible for non-experts to deem the information acceptable or not because Wikipedia is not a primary source but rather a compilation of knowledge from other sources; all information presented by the site must be verified against other sources and cited. Most edits and reviews are done by a close knit group of about 600 to 1,000 Wikimedians who know each other, are in constant communication and really care about the site, according to the site’s co-founder Jimmy Wales in a 2013 TEDTalk. In the same talk, Wales stated that only about 18 percent of edits are made by anonymous users.
“Anyone can edit” does not mean it’s a hooligan’s paradise where anyone can write whatever they want. Most changes are invisible to readers who aren’t logged in until reviewed – the last change made to the oranges article was reviewed by 27 different watchers.
Unfortunately, falsities do slip through the cracks, particularly on obscure pages that have few watchers and lack of readily accessible ways of verifying information. In 2005, the journal Nature evaluated Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica versions of 42 science-related articles, finding that Wikipedia had a total of 162 errors. How many did Britannica have? 123.
This is the most important thing to consider because, no matter what your opinion of Wikipedia is, the fundamental reality is that it – like Britannica, your textbooks, your professors, your mom, the New York Times, Fox News, Merriam Webster, dictionary.com and so on – is just a source of information, provided to you for free because its founders believe that knowledge should be accessible, constantly updated and free to everyone. It’s not the Holy Grail of truth, nor does it claim to be. If you claim that Wikipedia is invalid because it has errors, then that means literally everything (including Encyclopaedia Britannica) is invalid. Our job, as intelligent seekers of information, is not to blindly consume, but rather to take what’s presented, verify it and decide for ourselves if it’s valid.
Olivia Shuler is a College freshman from Atlanta, Georgia.