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Wikipedia is a global phenomenon. Since its creation in 2001 it has become the seventh largest website in the world. It attracts around six million visitors a day. Free to use, it is truly the encyclopaedia by the people, for the people.
So why has it recently been branded a ‘monster’ in the press? What has led some universities to ban their students from using it for research?
The reason may be rooted in the very concept of Wikipedia – it really is written ‘by the people’, meaning anyone can contribute. And their contributions are instantly made public.
In the case of many Wikipedia articles this is not a problem. Enthusiasm for knowledge and expertise in their chosen field make many contributors perfect ‘Wikipedians’.
However, like anything that is almost entirely in the public domain, it is often misused by people who vandalise its pages, whether as a joke or with more malicious intentions.
Wikipedia hoaxes are now commonplace. Celebrities and politicians are usually in the firing line. Recently, Alan Titchmarsh was embarrassed when someone altered his page to reveal that he had published an updated version of the Kama Sutra. Also, Robbie Williams was said to make millions ‘eating domestic pets in pubs in and around Stoke’. David Beckham was once listed as ‘a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century’.
It is possible for such inaccuracies to go unchanged. Wikipedia has just 23 employees based in Silicon Valley. There are 75,000 approved volunteer editors who check its pages in their spare time. But it is often left up to readers to edit entries. In these cases there is no way of knowing whether the person ‘correcting’ the information is an expert, a saboteur or simply mistaken.
Occasionally there are bits of vandalism which are just too bizarre to be forgotten. As a tribute to these, Wikipedia employees have created ‘BJAODN’, the ‘bad jokes and other deleted nonsense’ page.
This page includes entries such as ‘Coca-Cola in the Wild’: ‘In its natural state, Coca-Cola is docile until attacked, when it will spray sweet liquid on the predator’. Apparently, it may ‘accidentally’ tip over near your feet in the cinema or disguise itself as the less popular Pepsi or Dr. Pepper brands.
Another article quickly deleted from the main site, but remembered on BJAODN presumably for the sheer effort that had gone into creating it, was the ‘Upper Peninsula War’ entry. The article contained vast amounts of ‘information’ on the fictitious conflict between Michigan and Canada, as well as maps, pictures, even references and footnotes. It was only discovered to be false when Google returned no search results for it. As Wikipedia says: ‘If it is not on Google, it doesn’t exist’.
Until 2005 readers did not even need to be registered to edit articles. But when a saboteur linked an American journalist to the John F. Kennedy assassination this was changed.
More recently, U.S. senator Ted Kennedy was wrongly listed as having died after he collapsed at the inauguration of Barack Obama. This prompted a proposal called the ‘Flagged Revisions’ policy, which would stop first-time or anonymous users making instant additions because they would first have to be approved by trusted users.
However, this has led to accusations of censorship and a challenge to the very concept of Wikipedia as a public encyclopaedia.
Wikipedia was created by Jimmy Wales, a former research director at a trading firm in Chicago. He claims he is the sole founder, though he is widely considered to be the co-founder with American philosopher Larry Sander – funnily enough, both sides of this argument can be found in their respective Wikipedia entries.
Even Wales is not immune to the urge to tamper with Wikipedia articles. He was caught altering his own page, as well as that of his former company, Bomis. Allegedly, he was embarrassed by the company’s adult content; according to American magazine The Atlantic Monthly it is ‘the Playboy of the internet’.
Wales acknowledges that mistakes do occur. Obviously it should not be used as a single source, but Wales claims that Wikipedia can be used as a ‘stepping stone’ to other resources. Most students will agree and will have used it, at least to give them an overview of a topic before researching it further.
If it is used simply as a ‘stepping stone’ and any particularly strange looking information is double checked, it seems there is little problem as far as the academic pages are concerned. If the ‘Flagged Revisions’ policy is successful, incorrect entries could become a thing of the past.
Wikipedia is not all about pranks and celebrities; many of its articles are useful and informative. Perhaps refining who can submit and edit articles will make it a respected encyclopaedia, rather than a forum for petty arguments and celebrity rumours.
Alan Titchmarsh was rumoured to have published an updated version of the Kama Sutra
For a short while Tony Blair’s middle name was listed as ‘whoop-de-doo’
The entire entry for Harry Potter was erased and replaced with a brutal plot spoiler: ‘Snape is the half-blood prince and kills Dumbledore’
George Bush is said to have had his page vandalised 40,000 times
The Sacha Baron Cohen creation, Borat, was once named as the president of Kazakhstan
David Beckham was described as an 18th century Chinese goalkeeper