Wiki it

So, the term "wiki" comes from the Hawaiian word "wiki wiki", which means "speedy".  It was originally used because the wiki style of creating web pages is very quick.  In fact, anyone who can type can make a wiki page.  No computer programming or markup language of any kind is necessary at all.

Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger took this idea of a wiki and decided to make an encyclopedia out of it.  It is known as Wikipedia.  Wikipedia was launched in January of 2001.  The English version currently has over 4 million different pages.  There are over 280 different languages which also have content in Wikipedia.  This project has grown to several other projects under the umbrella of the Wikimedia Foundation.  It has rapidly become a vast source of knowledge and data.  Overall, there have been over 1 billion edits to Wikimedia pages (including all projects).

The reason I'm writing about it is because I have had countless people tell me that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information.  The reasoning is that anyone can get on and edit any page to make it say anything they want it to say.  This is almost true--there are certain pages that are so frequently vandalized that they have been given "protected" status by the administrators and can only be modified by certain users.  (Pages such as George W Bush, where some people replaces the entire page with a picture of excrement multiple times.)  Certainly people will be mischievous, and people are not always well-informed.  Someone who is ignorant may unwittingly post something incorrect on there, and someone who is belligerent may purposely change information to make the page inaccurate.  I had a friend who admitted to doing this regularly with math pages.

At any rate, I find the aversion to trusting Wikipedia to be utterly ridiculous.  It is by far the most extensive encyclopedia that has ever been written.  With over 19 million pages (including all languages), it drastically dwarfs any other encyclopedia ever written by experts.  For example, take the Encyclopedia Britannica, arguably one of the most respected English encyclopedias in existence.  It has 100 full-time editors and just over 4,000 contributors (contrast that with the hundreds of admins and over 30 million users on Wikipedia) and together they have written somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million words on just under 500,000 topics.  Wikipedia has over 8 billion words on millions of different topics.  It is massive.  The biggest paper encyclopedia ever written is believed to be the Yongle Encyclopedia, with 370 million Chinese characters.

Wikipedia is better documented than any other encyclopedia.  At the bottom of any relatively-often visited page, there is a long list of references indicating where the information on the page can be verified.  And, in most cases, these are links to other web pages, so the information can be verified instantly, whereas with a printed encyclopedia, one would need to look up the books in a library and take quite some time to check facts.  As an example, I was just reading about Gene Roddenberry (because I loved the Star Trek series so much as a child, and even more so as an adult).  His page alone has 30 different references including books and web pages with all sorts of information about him where the interested reader could find out all sorts of information.  The content of his page consists of nearly 3,000 words.  That's quite an in-depth description about him.  Contrast that with Encyclopedia Britannica's article on him, which consists of 404 words.

My counter argument to people who say that Wikipedia isn't reliable because it can be edited by anyone is to use the exact same argument back.  It is reliable because it can be edited by anyone.  In particular, it can be edited by responsible and knowledgeable people who are experts on the matter they're discussing.  Very few people will go in and change something on a subject they're not confident about, they'll just read what someone else has written.  And the percentage of douchebags who decide that it's fun to vandalize pages is so small that editors who watch certain pages regularly will easily fix the errors before they become much of a problem.  It is even possible to write bots which will repair some types of vandalism.  I've spent my fair share of time fixing vandalism on Wikipedia.  It's actually quite easy now--there's an "undo" button to erase any particular edit which appears to be vandalism.

The reason it's so in-depth and so well-documented is because there are millions of people all adding what they know to the entries.  We each might know one little piece of the puzzle, but together we know so much.  I may know about a really good source of information on Gene Roddenberry and if I do, I can add it to the list of sources in the bottom of his Wikipedia page.  To get the same information published in Encyclopedia Britannica would take a long time, if they even did decide to add it.

I think it's about time for people in academia to start taking Wikipedia seriously.  It's about time to acknowledge that there is reliable information there.  And, even if the content on the encyclopedia itself is to be distrusted, at least it should be acknowledged that there are many reliable sources of information linked to from Wikipedia articles.  I go to Wikipedia to learn about math concepts that I am unfamiliar with.  And I don't just mean college Freshman-level math, like calculus and trigonometry.  I mean abstract algebra, topology, and so forth.  Some of the research I have done for my dissertation has been on Wikipedia.  I've even written and expanded many math entries myself with information I know that wasn't there.  Look these concepts up in Britannica:

  1. Cardinal arithmetic
  2. Ordinal arithmetic
  3. Generalized Continuum Hypothesis
  4. Limit Cardinal
  5. Well-ordering theorem

And I would be bold enough to say that no other encyclopedia has as rich a multimedia repertoire as Wikipedia.  Certainly, an animated GIF such as the one on the right is possible in a printed encyclopedia, neither is any audio or video file, which are found all over Wikipedia.  Yes, the online version of an encyclopedia can include such files, but I'm sure that they're nowhere near as abundant as on Wikipedia.  (For anyone interested, the image on the right depicts how a coffee mug and a doughnut are topologically equivalent, which is one of the standard examples given when explaining what topology is to someone who's never heard of it.)

At any rate, I hope one day the phrase "wiki it" will not be used just between friends or siblings.  I hope that eventually it will become academically reasonable.