A decade of Wikipedia: lesser-known miracles

wp-10th.jpg Image: a few of the remixable design elements, via Wikimedia Commons

It's no secret that I love Wikipedia, which I consider one of the grandest and most radical social experiments of our time, and the very best example of what the free culture movement offers for the world's future. I even love Wikipedia critics. There's nothing I love more than to improve an article after some whiny-baby complains about its quality with a copypasta example. For instance, novelist Jonathan Lethem was bagging on "the infinite regress of Wikepedia [sic] tinkering-unto-mediocrity" the other day. Too bad The Atlantic has no way for readers to fix that typo in the way I updated the article on Blake Edwards' cult classic The Party, which was the object of Lethem's scorn. He seems to miss the point that an encyclopedia article, even one about a screwball comedy, is supposed to be dry, factual, and not especially screwball. Just the facts, ma'am. I also love that his snapshot of the page is no longer that relevant.

In the past I have discussed Wikibumps (like the spike of a million readers who checked out the Salvia article in the week after the Miley Cyrus bong video) and the Click to Jesus game, where you see how few links it takes to get from a random Wikipedia article to the Jesus article. Here are a couple of other good reasons to love Wikipedia and its sister projects which you may not have seen:

Best of Wikipedia Tumblr page
Raul's Laws, possibly the best and wonkiest explanation of how Wikipedia works

Commons Picture of the Year contest winners

I hope you'll swing by, learn some things, maybe improve something (they even have a secure server option). There is still plenty to do, and it will never be completed. At the very least, just marvel at the possibilities for the future of free culture embodied in the project. What are some of your favorite things about it? Please share in the comments.


  1. Umm…Cowicide, the phrase you were looking for is “I’ll fix you, Wikipedia!”

    Then go ahead and do that.

  2. I think Wikipedia’s wonderful- so much at your fingertips, mostly written and edited by people whose expertise encompasses their subjects. And when the information’s faulty, it gets fixed or at least flagged pretty quickly. I think Wikipedia is a more amazing place than Facebook, by far.

  3. We still have college/high school teachers here who warn their students that wikipedia is bogus and everything in it is made up,
    I shit you not.

    1. “We still have college/high school teachers here who warn their students that wikipedia is bogus and everything in it is made up,
      I shit you not.”

      Next time they say that, raise your hand and say, “citation needed”.

    2. You shouldn’t use Wikipedia as a source because it’s an encyclopedia and they shouldn’t be used as primary sources. It is, however, a great place to find sources via the citations.

  4. For instance, novelist Jonathan Lethem was bagging on “the infinite regress of Wikepedia [sic] tinkering-unto-mediocrity” the other day. Too bad The Altlantic has no way for readers to fix that typo in the way I updated the article on Blake Edwards’ cult classic The Party, which was the object of Lethem’s scorn.

    “The ALtlantic”? Too bad Boing Boing has no way for readers to fix that typo.

    O, irony.

    1. Surely there’s a named internet law describing that phenomenon, wherein making fun of a spelling or grammar mistake dramatically increases the probability of a spelling or grammar mistake of one’s own. I hereby crowdsource the question.

      1. Claim it for yourself. Then we can work on the internet law that says that anyone who claims a law inevitably finds a prior claim after announcing it.

      2. I’ve had it happen to me many times. Just usually not while trumpeting the superiority of wikis on a non-wiki resource. :)

  5. Bad information travels just as easily as good: Wikipedia helps proliferate some petty crimes against The Facts.

    For example, try the defenestrations of Prague:


    This little bit of bullshit was posted on Wikipedia once upon a time in the Internets, and now it’s all over everywhere:

    “They fell 30 metres [2] and landed on a large pile of manure in a dry moat and survived. Philip Fabricius was later ennobled by the emperor and granted the title von Hohenfall (lit. meaning “of Highfall”).”

    Just cut-and-paste-and-Google the quote and you’ll see what I mean.

    Large pile of manure, indeed.

    1. @goldstone: There, I fixed it for you. I just added four sources that corroborate the manure but put the height at about 21 meters (70 feet).

  6. I managed to avoid wikipedia for 90% of it’s 10 years, finding it to be somewhat like a good old boys club, with perpetuations of peculiar pop myths and hearsay. For some reason lately I have been visiting more often. Still wp is unsettling and just plain wrong. I see it now as loach entertainment.

  7. > Ugh… there’s still no mention of the crosshairs
    > map controversy on Palin’s main article.

    Then ADD IT. It’s Wikipedia. Duh.

    1. >I>> Then ADD IT. It’s Wikipedia. Duh.
      Check the actual links that Cowicide provided before lashing out and you’ll find two things:

      1. Palin’s wikipedia page is “protected” so you can’t edit it unless you’re a part of Wikipedias annointed inner circle. Duh.
      2. the cabal, sorry the wikipedians, are currently getting their knickers in a twist on the discussion forum for Palins page on weather or not this should be added to the page. This discussion page is also “protected”, so that the proletary won´t be able to pollute it with their uniformed wiewpoints. Double duh.

      This persistant notion, that wikipedia is for “everyone” to contribute to, is actually the main reason I don’t like Wikipedia; they aren’t upfront or honest about how their sausage is made, but prefer to paint a pretty but false publicity picture instead.

      In reality, less than 500 people are responsible for the majority of the edits. Most of them know each other personally. (By contrast, the Encyclopædia Britannica has 4100 contributing authors.)

      1. 1. Palin’s wikipedia page is “protected” so you can’t edit it unless you’re a part of Wikipedias annointed inner circle. Duh.

        You only need to be an autoconfirmed user, which apparently just means you need to have an account more than 4 days old that you’ve made at least 10 edits with.

      2. “In reality, less than 500 people are responsible for the majority of the edits. Most of them know each other personally.”


        Where are you getting that nugget of information?

          1. Which Jesse Weinstein’s link shows was probably not even accurate in 2006, let alone today.

            But yes, you are correct, Wikipedia is wonderful for being totally upfront with all criticism leveled against it.

          2. And, might I add, your selective quoting left out the next sentence:

            “However, when amount of text was used as a metric instead of edit count, the result was often the opposite. Most of the top contributors to the content of articles tended to be not big-time editors, but rather people who only edited Wikipedia occasionally – many of whom had not even bothered to register a Wikipedia account.”

            This is taken from the same source as what you quoted. The Wikipedia article incorrectly indicated that Wales stated this in 2009. It was 2006 according to the Swart’s article. I corrected that.

            So, no, the 500 editors claim is outdated and was actually inaccurate in 2006.

          3. So, in other words then: the information I obtained from a “semi-protected” Wikipedia page was incorrect, outdated, misquoted on the page, and not to be trusted, despite all the external sources and annotations.

            I stand corrected.

            Still quite an ironic situation, though.

          4. Actually, no. If you’d followed the linked source and read Swartz’s article you would have found this information, all available in the “external sources and annotations”. The only thing that was incorrect was the year given. Everything else applies. Wales made a guess in 2006 about how many people really build the content on Wikipedia, repeated it a few times and this became “fact”. The sentence following the Wales statement clarifies the issue. All there, all accurate.

            But we weren’t really talking about “incorrect, outdated, misquoted on the page, and not to be trusted”, now were we? No, we were talking about supposed cabals and the Pareto Effect.

            Wikipedia is a great resource, isn’t it?

  8. I love the fact that people criticizing Wikipedia, at least around me, are typically the ones who never open a dictionary or an encyclopedia offline anyway.

  9. Wikipedia is amazing, and insanely useful, as long as you don’t rely on it as an authoritative source of facts, which is the point that it makes for itself. Haters need to quit complaining about it, and lovers need to be realistic about it. It’s not meant to be cited as a source in college papers, and I’m afraid that many people do need to be made to understand that many of the articles found on the Wik are written from highly subjective points of view. It may not be reliable for breaking news – what source is? – but if you need to find out the Superfamily of the Giraffe Beetle (Curculionoidea), Wikipedia will deliver that information in seconds, no fumbling about on a search engine needed. I believe that’s ultimately good for scholarship.

  10. I think Lethem’s complaint about the summary of The Party isn’t that it’s dry or factual. The quoted summary is just badly written, full of clumsy writing and snippets of arbitrary fact that don’t cohere into any sort of greater whole.

    That’s my biggest complaint about Wikipedia, by the way. Even well-written passages gradually get edited into ugly mush as generations of editors insist in wedging in their favorite fact, no matter how irrelevant, into whatever nook or cranny catches their attention as they scroll down the Edit page.

    1. @Avram: agreed. The best articles are the ones that get debated endlessly, until they are polished like sea glass, while the obscure articles tend to be hit or miss, depending on who worked on them and whether someone is willing to babysit the article. Plot summaries, especially for a notoriously plotless film, are an easy target. I think Bruce Sterling’s analogy of “a big sprawling semilegal favela” is more accurate: built up here, falling apart there, kind of unmanageable. There are people who complain about favelas, and then there are people who jump in and try to make them better. To me, heckling from the sidelines always says more about the heckler than anything else.

  11. Wikipedia is effective in inverse relationship to whether or not anybody cares about the subject of the particular article. For a generic history of France or Scotland, or for learning about genera of bugs and fish, it works quite well. Articles on recent politics or anything religious tend to be a nightmare of infighting. I would completely discount Wikipedia as a source on something like Mormonism (except for the driest history bits) because it’s a propaganda war zone.

    If you put a link in a comment here to the article on Millard Fillmore, most people will regard it as a reasonable citation. I would hope that nobody would regard a link to the Sarah Palin article as any kind of serious proof.

    1. Wikipedia is effective in inverse relationship to whether or not anybody cares about the subject of the particular article.

      Is that yours? Because I’m stealing it and want to attribute properly.

      It seems obvious that educational institutions should not allow wikipedia to be cited as a source in student papers because it’s mungable.

      I no longer contribute to wikipedia – there’s no point in typing stuff if it’ll just be deleted by the cabal. I was very active in they early days, back when people edited new articles to be better instead of just deleting them.

  12. There’s an app for that…. 3degrees is a game you can play with wikipedia in which you have to link to a given page in, you guessed it, three clicks from another given article. Users can set up challenges for other users and they can be rated. Pretty good fun.

  13. John Le Carré wrote that ‘Publishers can get their minds halfway round anything’. As a freelance translator working on a variety of subjects, I find the same skill is required in my profession.

    As a result, Wikipedia has been a game-changer for translators. It’s certainly not one hundred percent accurate or definitive, but it makes it possible to get your mind halfway round a subject – enough to grasp the basic issues and discover what the related ones are. Ten years ago I could never have done this job the way I do today and Wikipedia is a key reason.

    And yes, when I have sufficient reliable information at my fingertips thanks to my job, I do my bit and edit inaccuracies.

    1. Hear here!

      Yes, Antinous’ “dry history bits”, an earlier poster’s scientific references, and your “what *is* that about?” are valid uses of the amazing reference that is Wikipedia.

      Yes, it is not a proof. It is, however, a strong hint on where to go looking for a proof, which can only be appreciated by those of us who grew up before such things were available.

      I wrote a thesis, exhaustively researched in multiple libraries, (because no single library had all the publications I needed) and all but the most technical details are on the WP page.

      We are more knowledgeable now than ever before, and WP deserves some credit for that.

  14. Am I the only person who wouldn’t mind if Wikipedia actually tried some way of making money besides begging people to donate to it? I wouldn’t want to have commercial considerations alter the content, but what’s so bad about a few banner ads?

  15. I’m one of the editors of the Best of Wikipedia page — the primary one, these days. Just wanted to clarify, since I wasn’t sure what ‘sister project’ meant in this context: we’re not affiliated with Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons/anything of the sort. It started as a one-man operation, and when he got busy I took over and it’s a one-woman operation these days.

    As such, I highly encourage everyone who’s interested to pop over that way and, if we haven’t featured your favorite article in the past, submit it to the queue. You don’t need a tumblr to submit (or to follow us!)

    And thanks for the link, Andrea, glad you like it!

    1. So, the truth in 2006 was closer to 1000-2000 people. If you look at the list of most active users http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:List_of_Wikipedians_by_number_of_edits/latest you see that there are 4000 editors who have contributed from 11,000 to 824,856 edits. A more thorough analysis of statistics would be needed to show how those edits spread out in article development. However, I’d guess that these 4000 editors represent a great deal of content. Of course, there are plenty of editors that fall outside that list that have contributed less than 11,000 but that is still a significant number of edits.

      So using Eyesore’s example, Encyclopædia Britannica having 4100 contributors, they kind of come out the same. Well, not really, since Wikipedia obviously has more than 4000 active editors. As for “most of them know each other personally”, I can’t imagine where that idea comes from. I’ve been editing Wikipedia since 2006 and have never met a single Wikipedia editor in person. We “know” each other in the sense that when you contribute and discuss things you get to know other editors online but that’s it.

      This nonsense about cabals is an old canard and it has been shown time and again to be false by anyone who actually cares to check the facts. Those that complain the most about bias or cabals tend to be the ones who actually want to game the system, or included non-neutral opinions, or inflammatory rhetoric. When the “regulars” call them on it, the charge of bias or cabals is the first thing thrown into the mix.

  16. Freshacconci, the only informed people who go around saying the cabal does not exist are the cabal. Your denialism and spin doctoring are old hat.

  17. Wikipedia is fun and useful except when it comes to living persons. It’s universal accessibility and top Google results become a nightmare when you’re a living person with an unwanted article on you in Wikipedia. It then becomes a virtual hovering whiteboard on which any passerby can scrawl their chosen assemblage of your life’s facts (sourced though that particular curation might be), while you are not allowed to edit or remove because it’s some sort of conflict of interest.

    It may be legal, but it’s not cool.

    One can only hope for someone in the inner circle to intervene if things go awry. Otherwise, your internet identity (which is increasingly synonymous with your legal and real-word identity) is shadowed by the privately owned, cabal-sourced 900lb gorilla that also dispenses soothingly benevolent information on fig varieties and combustion engines to the average reader.

    And yes, I’m teh butthurt because I don’t like having a Wikipedia article about me, and no they won’t delete it. A perfectly banal article, but that doesn’t mean I have to want it or like it.

    Poor Andrea, I’ve already debated her ear off about it, but surely I’m not the only person who wants a “do not participate” option? Is there a sad-face version of LOL?

    1. Just in case you’re not feeling quite creepy enough about it, I actually read your Wikipedia article a couple of days ago.

      It’s a small world after all. It’s a small, small world.

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