Wikipedia: The “unreliable” source we all rely on

It's Wikipedia's World, we're just living in it

Wikipedia-logo by Nohat (concept by Paullusmagnus); CC BY-SA 3.0

Once considered a minefield of erroneous information, Wikipedia has developed into the most frequently accessed knowledge repository on the planet. As a result of the liberal values that were cultivated during its infancy, Wikipedia has come to be seen as the paradigm case of the sharing economy by successfully drawing upon the wealth of knowledge embedded in its users (Lessig, 2008).

This critical analysis will first consider the purpose Wikipedia was intended to serve, and briefly outline its development history. It will then consider the remarkable business model that Wikipedia has upheld since its inception and consider the impacts this has had on content creation. Finally, it will look at how Wikipedia has transformed our relationship with information in a social, cultural and economic context.


The Inspiration for Wikipedia

Wikipedia advertises itself as “The Free Encyclopedia” and this description deserves greater attention. An encyclopedia provides its reader with summaries of information, usually curated by experts in the relevant field. This seems almost trivial to say today, but when you consider the historical role of the encyclopedia as THE definitive source of information, the very concept of Wikipedia – an encyclopedia that anyone can edit – appears utterly incoherent. What use could anyone possibly have for an encyclopedia where any entry could have been written by an author with no clue what they were talking about?


As was made clear by Marshall Poe (2006), Wikipedia as it exists today was not always the product that co-founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger had envisioned. Its predecessor was Nupedia which, like Wikipedia, was intended to be a free online encyclopedia, however the articles in Nupedia were peer-reviewed which drastically slowed down the speed at which they could be created. To speed up the process, Sanger launched “Wikipedia” which was devised as a feeder site for Nupedia. This new site harnessed “Wiki” technology, which made collaboration online far simpler. The growth of Wikipedia quickly overshadowed Nupedia, and thus Wales and Sanger ended up focusing on their new venture. Today, upwards of 55 million articles have been published to Wikipedia in over 300 languages.


Although it is now an established source for information, Wikipedia experienced significant growing pains in the early days of its development. One well-documented case of erroneous information on Wikipedia emerged in 2005, when the page for journalist John Siegenthaler was edited to include the false claim that he was a suspect in the assassination of JFK (Matei & Britt, 2017). Wikipedia has also faced challenges from within, with criticism levelled at the infighting that occurs between editors on discussion pages (Van Dijk, 2009), as well as the dangers associated with giving a tiny number of editors control over such a critical piece of online infrastructure, with just 1% of editors making approximately 77% of all edits on Wikipedia (Matei & Britt, 2017).


The Business of Wikipedia

Figure 2: Screenshot of Wikipedia donation prompt


Wikipedia’s crowdsourced funding model is very familiar to its users, who are annually accosted with ads begging for more than “2% of the people reading this message” to donate to its operations. For founder Jimmy Wales, it was essential that users saw Wikipedia as an independent source with a neutral point of view (NPOV), rather than commercially manipulated “advertising fluff” (Lessig, 2008, pp. 162). Since 2003, the site has been managed and funded by the Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees a number of other Wiki projects.


Keeping servers online exclusively through donations is impressive, but what is arguably more incredible is that Wikipedia has been able to sustain itself on donations of knowledge in the form of user generated content (UGC). Unlike commercial platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, Wikipedia content creators receive no revenue for their contributions, and the Creative Commons licensing of the site means that once information is published on Wikipedia anyone can freely reproduce it. Recruiting and retaining users is one of the biggest challenges for any crowdsourced system, and yet Wikipedia continues to find editors despite offering no tangible return on their investment (Doan et al, 2011). Unfortunately, this approach to enfranchising editors fails to engage with females and non-binary people effectively, as the below video shows.



However, Wikipedia has come under fire for perpetuating the dominance of predominantly white male perspectives, a noted issue for online communities (Massanari, 2017). In 2014 it was revealed that only 15% of biographies on English Wikipedia were about women (Maher, 2018; Hyman, 2011), and a 2019 study revealed that female and non-binary editors often felt unsafe when editing due to the threat of having their personal information published online – a practice known as doxxing. Thus, while this crowdsourced business model has shown success to an extent, it has struggled to engage contributors from diverse backgrounds.


The Online Information Ecosystem

When asked in the 2005 interview below why Wikipedia had not yet been bought out by Google or Yahoo, Wales said, “their business model depends on the internet not sucking and we help the internet not suck” (Wales, 2005). Wikipedia now touts a more nuanced goal of showcasing “the sum of all human knowledge” and while it once fought for legitimacy in the industry of online encyclopedias, Wikipedia now stands alone as the most relied upon source for information online.


Wikipedia occupies a unique place in the online ecosystem because it is a not-for-profit and thus operates similarly to a public good. As one arm of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia has a number of sister projects operating alongside it, such as Wikiquote and Wiktionary. It is also connected to the academic and media sources that provide references for the information on articles, particularly when considering Wikipedia’s performance in search engine optimisation metrics, as an external link to a Wikipedia article earns a huge amount of attention.


Wikipedia is essentially devoid of competitors due to its unmatchable amount of content and status as a public good, however its reliance on search engines – which account for 74.2% of total traffic according to – places it in competition with other online businesses for user attention. Additionally, Wikipedia has been banned in China, and thus national governments upset with neutral coverage of their affairs can threaten the sustainability of Wikipedia’s publicly funded business model.


In terms of regulation, Wikipedia content is published under the CC-BY-SA license, however it is obligated to remove material that infringes upon copyright. It has also been compelled by national governments to censor content, such as when the UK blacklisted an article featuring an album cover of a nude prepubescent girl.


Finally, users of Wikipedia are responsible for the production and consumption of the content on the site. The actual overlap of editors and users is minor, but the few editors that nurture Wikipedia take on an enormous responsibility. Curators of Wikipedia are tasked with rummaging through a glut of information and misinformation online to produce articles that will become the reference point for millions of people worldwide (Halavais, 2013).


Wikipedia Ecosystem Map

How Wikipedia Transformed the Internet

Considering the relative lack of funding compared to similarly popular websites, the continued success of Wikipedia can look surprising, however its impact becomes clear when analysing the impact that Wikipedia’s democratisation of information online has had on our society.


Firstly, the success of Wikipedia’s crowdsourced knowledge model transformed the culture of information dissemination by taking it out of the hands of an elite few and allowing diverse perspectives to author articles. Before the advent of Wikipedia, encyclopedias were written under the direct oversight of a single organisation (Stallman, 2000). While this was an effective step in ensuring that the information contained in an encyclopedia was factually accurate, Wikipedia’s “bottom-up” approach enables the existence of more diverse perspectives. Critically, empirical evidence suggests that identity diverse groups are better at problem solving than homogenous ones (Page, 2019). If Wikipedia commits to encouraging these diverse viewpoints, its global audience will benefit greatly from the holistic understanding it creates.


In terms of its social impact, Wikipedia has tapped into some people’s desire to contribute to something bigger than themselves in a way unlike any other online platform. While it is similar to other UGC platforms in that the users of the site provide the content for the site, it is unique in the way that it offers users no way to be paid for their contributions. This reflects the liberal values of early internet imaginaries, and indeed Jimmy Wales (Reagle, 2012), that saw cyberspace as an opportunity for citizens to collaborate freely without the pressures of corporate expectations or government regulation. As noted by Geri et al. (2017), a primary motivator for contributors to sites like Wikipedia is the prestige and status they can develop as a result of their contributions. This is likely a major factor in the gender disparity of Wikipedia editors, as men place greater value upon status gains than women (Mujcic & Frijters, 2013).


Finally, Wikipedia has had a profound influence on search engine optimisation (SEO). SEO refers to the various techniques used to make one’s website appear higher in the results of a search engine. Specialists in SEO attempt to deconstruct the hidden rules of search algorithms, often focusing on the use of key words or the number of outward links on a page. Google changes these rules regularly, but what does not change is the consistency with which Wikipedia appears atop the search results.


A study in 2012 found that from a list of 1000 randomly selected nouns, Wikipedia appeared on Google’s front page 99% of the time (Gibbons, 2012). As such, SEO specialists have attempted to mimic Wikipedia’s approach in order to boost their own ranking, such as using tools that break down which key words generate the most traffic for Wikipedia. Another looked into the effectiveness of slipping your own website into the references of a Wikipedia article (Spencer, 2007). Despite its complete lack of commercial interests, the way Wikipedia has solved SEO continues to inform practitioners today.


Closing Remarks

In an online economy characterised by the shameless commodification of data and algorithms that prioritise engagement above all else, Wikipedia sticks out as a relic of the ideological past. Wikipedia’s primary innovation was to crowdsource information, and the continued success of the site as well as its impact on other online industries shows this. It has remained independent from advertising and kept faith in the community that built it from a sandbox of incomplete ideas into the most comprehensive library of information in human history.



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About James Frederiksen 1 Article
A student studying Media and Communications at Sydney University. All opinions expressed are my own.