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Wikipedia's Accomplishments and Challenges
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Link-Up Digital

Wikipedia, the world's largest and most frequently used encyclopedia (www.en.wikipedia.org), recently reached two informative milestones, both mobile related.

First, it hit three billion page views per month on smartphones and tablets. Second, the percentage of page views on mobile devices surpassed 15% of its traffic.

Wikipedia is a free user-generated Internet-based encyclopedia, and since its launch in 2001 it has continued to grow and change, adjusting to evolving conditions and countering criticisms.

It's supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco and by users, who it periodically asks, more or less intrusively, to donate money to it. The most visible individual presence behind Wikipedia is co-founder Jimmy Wales, who previously ran a male-oriented adult entertainment web portal.

The recent mobile milestones of Wikipedia point to how it's growing as well as how it's reaching out to mobile users. In July 2013, Wikipedia made it possible for all registered mobile users to correct, add to, or otherwise edit encyclopedia articles.

As explained in a post by Wikipedia engineer Juliusz Gonera, "Have you ever looked up something quickly on Wikipedia on your phone, noticed a small mistake, and wished you could fix it on the spot? Or maybe you didn't realize that you could contribute? Now you can help keep Wikipedia and its sister projects up-to-date and accurate when you're on the go by editing from your phone."

The usage statistic of 15% by smartphone and tablet users also points to the large number of people who still use desktop and laptop personal computers, not only to access Wikipedia but in general.

Wikipedia itself is huge. As of the time of this writing, Wikipedia included 28 million articles, 4.2 million in English. It publishes in an astounding 286 different languages. Next to English, the most commonly represented languages in order are Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. In contrast, the last printed version of Encyclopedia Britannica has 66,000 articles in English, which is only about 1.6% as many. Wikipedia is the eighth most visited website in the US, according to web measurement firm comScore (www.comscore.com).

One of the criticisms over the years against Wikipedia is that it's not reliable enough to be used as a scholarly resource. In July 2013, co-founder Wales in London reached out to educators in a speech, contending that students can learn not only by reading Wikipedia articles but also by editing them.

Wikipedia holds that its self-correcting method minimizes errors. In a widely discussed study published in the December 2005 issue of Nature magazine, Wikipedia's error rate was only slightly higher than Encyclopedia Britannica's.

This democratization of article editing has its disadvantages as well. Sometimes article writers take such aggressive ownership of their articles that they remove the corrections that others make. This can lead to "edit wars," which are played out in the "Talk" component of individual articles.

The most controversial Wikipedia articles in English, with the most "reverts" (definition: undoing the effects of one or more edits), include those about George W. Bush, anarchism, Mohammed, global warming, circumcision, the United States, and Jesus, according to a new study by researchers at Oxford University (www.arxiv.org/abs/1305.5566).

Wikipedia's user-generated nature also makes it a sometimes surprisingly nimble news source about events ranging from the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI to Hurricane Sandy.

According to the Ph.D. dissertation of Northwestern University researcher Brian Keegan (www.neu.academia.edu/BrianKeegan), during the first four to six hours after the beginning of a breaking news event, a number of people share relatively equally in the writing and editing of a Wikipedia article about it, but after six hours a smaller number of specialists take over.

Wikipedia continues to generate its own news and controversy. Since its founding, various public figures have spoken out against the errors in Wikipedia about them, including author Philip Roth.

More damning is the reality that some "consultants" charge for writing, placing, and editing Wikipedia articles for clients. Untrikiwiki (www.untrikiwiki.com) contended last year that "A positive Wikipedia article is invaluable...WE HAVE THE EXPERTISE NEEDED to navigate the complex maze surrounding 'conflict of interest' editing on Wikipedia."

It has since removed this language from its website, but it still provides Wikipedia services. Wikipedia has stated that it will block the publication of such articles when it discovers them.

You should approach Wikipedia similarly to other sources of information, online or offline. With any piece of information that's both surprising and important, you should confirm it elsewhere with at least two other sources, checking that those sources haven't copied the information from the same source.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgoldsborough@gmail.com.


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