In Defense of Wikipedia

By Claire Wilson

October 30, 2023

I love Wikipedia. I have loved it for a very long time. It has been my friend and my late night confidant. It has opened my eyes to the world and given me a way to find answers to my questions, and even solutions to my problems. But through our tender and enduring relationship, I have watched in sadness as Wikipedia, my delightful friend, has been the subject of  unfair scrutiny and even persecution. 

Since elementary school, students have heard the same thing from teachers, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source.” Their reasoning? Wikipedia is open-source, meaning anyone can edit articles. While this makes it less than ideal for student research projects, it causes students to think of it as an infernal abyss festering with misinformation and they tend to avoid it altogether. The idea that Wikipedia is unreliable because anyone can edit it is true in part, but is not the full story. 

In March 2023, Sverrir Steinsson, a PhD student at George Washington University, investigated factors that influence the credibility of English Wikipedia over time, and found that: 

“Wikipedia transformed from a dubious source of information in its early years to an increasingly reliable one over time. Process tracing shows that early outcomes of disputes over rule interpretations in different corners of the encyclopedia demobilized certain types of editors (while mobilizing others) and strengthened certain understandings of Wikipedia’s ambiguous rules (while weakening others). Over time, Wikipedians who supported fringe content departed or were ousted.”

The Wikipedia logo, which conveys both its  language accessibility and the ever-expanding nature of the platform.

An example of vandalism in which content is replaced by an unintelligent and mean spirited insult.

Although Wikipedia has no strict rules, it does have policies that have solidified over time. Writers are to write from a neutral perspective, add citations, and resolve disputes in a civil manner. As noted by Steinsson, the simultaneous expulsion of disruptive contributors and creation of more concrete policies has resulted in an increasingly reliable encyclopedia. Over time, these policies have created an online community of like-minded intellectual individuals who thrive in an environment of ever-increasing accountability and collaboration. 

Finding out how reliable a certain Wikipedia article actually is is easier than one might think, thanks to its many innovative and exciting editing features. Citations allow readers to check where information came from and to evaluate the reliability of these sources. They also make Wikipedia a great starting place for research. If a student is writing a paper and wants to avoid directly quoting Wikipedia, citations make it easy to find articles and studies related to their topic. 

The watchlist is one of my favorites features, because it notifies users when an article on their watchlist has been edited. This allows users who are particularly knowledgeable in a certain field to check edits on their articles and remove vandalism or misinformation right away. In fact, journalist Gene Weingarten ran a test in 2007, wherein he intentionally vandalized his own biography to prove the inaccuracy of Wikipedia. The misinformation was removed 27 hours later by an editor who had Weingarten on his watchlist. 

Although vandalism is usually noticed and edits reverted in a timely manner, misinformation often causes more public distrust of the platform after it has been taken down. According to a Slate article, “Screenshots of vandalized Wikipedia articles, even when reverted within minutes, often have a much longer afterlife in news reports and on social media, creating the public impression that the platform is more vulnerable to abuse than it actually is.” Today, Wikipedia is equipped with an anti-vandal bot, ClueBot, which uses machine learning to detect vandalism and revert the changes. 

So what makes Wikipedia so great? Why am I so in love with this beautiful and ever-growing vault of information? For starters, Wikipedia is completely free. It allows people everywhere to access information in 336 languages. With more than 6 million articles, it is by far the largest and most comprehensive compilation of human knowledge ever to exist. 

Wikipedia is written by contributors from every corner of the world who provide vastly different worldviews and experiences, while still writing from an unbiased perspective. This level of diversity of thought cannot be achieved in a typical encyclopedia written by contributors who come from similar academic and cultural backgrounds. These encyclopedias are usually seen as more reliable, but they aren’t updated anywhere near as much as Wikipedia, where every second, more than two articles are updated, and, on average, 545 articles are created each day. 

I love Wikipedia because of its free, open source format which makes information accessible to people everywhere. I love the community of editors that work tirelessly to improve articles. I love it because it is imperfect and always improving. Wikipedia is fun and exciting, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in our relationship. 

For more information: Rule Ambiguity, Institutional Clashes, and Population Loss: How Wikipedia Became the Last Good Place on the Internet | American Political Science Review | Cambridge Core