How Wikipedia Gets Content

Wikipedia. It’s such a mysterious collection of information- where does it all come from and where does it all go? Is it an encyclopedia or a blog? Should I use it as a source?  You have asked yourself these questions, right before you clicked on that familiar info box on the right side of a Google search and started reading. It’s just so convenient!

Many sources of daily information, including news sites and traditional encyclopedias, develop their content based on the editorial model of content creation.  Typically, someone researches and writes about a topic and then runs it by a team for accuracy, structure, and grammar before being published- That’s the key here: before. This process has two qualities which have carried it through for hundreds of years in the publication industry- accountability and accuracy. Conversely, Wikipedia runs on a philosophy that allows anyone to edit anytime, which democratizes accountability and tries to work toward accuracy. This process is very much a living, breathing, human collaboration that is always evolving. As beckoned by the founder of the site, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.” Admitting the wonderful intention of that idea, it is also implied that the goal of the original Wikipedia project is expediency. Comparing the rate at which formal encyclopedias create content with that of Wikipedia, it becomes immediately obvious why only the open-editing process of Wikipedia could meet the insane content creation demands of its founder.

Wikipedia Content Flow Chart.png

Issues like accuracy and accountability that were less problematic in traditional editorial processes, became the huge issue for Wikipedia that we see today. In need of fast content creation, Wikipedia guidelines promote editing by anyone and the ability to do so anonymously as well as immediate publication of any changes. To counter that openness, Wikipedia relies on a community of editors that scan articles for opportunities to improve accuracy, formatting, or neutralizing biased content. As a reference document, this system works relatively well for cultivating a place to start research. What has resulted however, is a tremendous trust in a resource that falls apart in its editorial process in several places.

Per Wikipedia guidelines, an “editor” only needs a username and password to secure an account, with most pages welcoming editing without a login. Without an identity attached to edits, vandalism becomes rampant on many pages across Wikipedia and with so many people editing, everyone and no one becomes responsible for the information accuracy. Since edits are immediately published, editors are expected to notice changes, and verify their accuracy in real-time. This process only works if the page has a solid team of editors paying attention, otherwise, changes and vandalism go unchecked and damage to a brand or individual is imminent.  As MIT Review investigated in 2013, Wikipedia editor engagement has fallen by 1/3 since 2007, while readership increased- meaning that more people are reading while fewer editors verify the information’s accuracy.  

Perhaps you are wondering if anyone takes Wikipedia seriously enough to warrant any concern? With the rise of digital assistants like Siri, Google Home, and Alexa, where is their information sourced? Wikipedia. Search engines also favor Wikipedia by creating a search result space dedicated to Wikipedia pages. Once the information is distributed in the above ways, reporters and internet content creators source the information for use on their platforms, which we often see on sites like IMDB. Once that false information gets carried over to a closed-editing platform, getting it removed becomes a huge issue and is sometimes impossible. Not only are students, reporters, and content writers picking up Wikipedia information as fact, a recent study found that researchers use remarkably similar language in their papers to the Wikipedia pages regarding their topic of study- even though most pages about medicine on Wikipedia have significantly false information. This is an indicator that at the highest levels of academia Wikipedia is pervasive in its influence and unchallengeable as “fact”.

Is your Wikipedia page spreading “facts” or facts? Stay informed on content that is being presented as fact about you by monitoring changes to your Wikipedia page. Get instant notifications of any changes to your Wikipedia page with WikiPatrol email alerts:

Thea Fries