By Andreas Kolbe
The other day, a contributor to question-and-answer site Quora asked: “Why did people create huge, comprehensive websites like Wikipedia for free?”
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, a frequent and well-loved commenter on Quora (as well as an investor in the site), left a short reply that had no difficulty establishing itself as the most popular answer: “Because it’s awesome.” It was an astute piece of cheerleading from Wales – and it worked. His one-liner received over 1,800 upvotes.
Wikipedia is funded by donations from the public (nearly $50 million in the last accounting year, an almost ten-fold increase over takings five years ago), and much of its PR work relies on feel-good messages. Wales has made a living from supplying them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement: Wales makes a good income from his speaking fees – typically over $70,000 per event, according to the New York Times – and Wikipedia benefits from the publicity he generates.
However, Wales’ throwaway answer masks a far more complex reality.
Wikipedia’s Google footprint
In January 2004, the English Wikipedia had just 277 contributors making more than 100 edits a month. One year later, it was 801; by January 2006, it was 3,051, eventually peaking at almost 4,800 in March 2007. What happened?
By 2005, people noticed that Wikipedia had begun to dominate Google search results, with many searches featuring a Wikipedia article among the top Google hits (see e.g. Wikipedia Ruling in Google Search Results? from 2006, and Google offers to help Wikipedia from 2005).
The fact that anyone researching a subject online would be directed to Wikipedia made Wikipedia articles an obvious vehicle to influence public opinion. The site became an attractive outlet to anyone who had a stake in how a particular issue was viewed by the general public – all the more so since it could be edited anonymously.
Wikipedia, fervently committed to protecting the identity of its contributors, provided a convenient mechanism for reputation laundering. As Wikipedia articles are not signed, they are associated with the Wikipedia name and brand rather than the contributors themselves. (There is an article history tool which makes individual contributions visible, but given that Wikipedia editors generally use pseudonyms and divulging or speculating on the real identity of a pseudonymous editor is a ban-worthy offence in Wikipedia, the provenance of any edit is usually untraceable for the average reader.)
An article in Wikipedia would seem to be part of an encyclopedia, which uninitiated readers would assume to be under some sort of professional editorial control. As such, statements in a Wikipedia article would be more easily accepted as the truth than anything published in a fringe publication, or hosted on a partisan website with known affiliations. Wikipedia was the new place to clean your reputation, and present your goods unstained to a global audience, as if established and reliable fact.
As a result, the site began to attract armies of social and political entrepreneurs whose primary interest lay not in building an educational reference site, but in the promotion of particular causes. As early adopters made easy gains, more people were drawn to Wikipedia, keen to prevent others from furthering causes they were opposed to.
When activists joined Wikipedia en masse, sometimes coordinating their activities on forums and mailing lists off-site (see Wiki-war in the Middle East; Eastern European mailing list arbitration case), Wikipedia became the scene of major ideological battles between editors and factions of editors, many of them holding extreme opinions and desiring to use Wikipedia as a megaphone (for a poignant current example, see How pro-fascist ideologues are rewriting Croatia’s history).
Wikipedia’s archive of arbitration cases gives an indication of the types of topics that were most heavily contested – topics like climate change, pseudoscience, Israel/Palestine, Gibraltar, Scientology, Sathya Sai Baba, neuro-linguistic programming, pedophilia, and various ethnic conflicts (see for example Wikipedia’s arbitration case index for 2005 and 2006; for comparison, see the index for 2004). Most if not all of these topic areas have been the subject of further arbitration cases over the years, and the pattern established then has continued to this day: Wikipedia is edited by partisans with strong opinions, and controversial topics attract disproportionately more edits and editors on Wikipedia than topics where the facts are not in dispute. Controversial topic areas also experience a proliferation of content: activists have long known that the best way to publicise a scandal that reflects poorly on an ideological opponent is to create a standalone Wikipedia article about it, which will be guaranteed to hit the top of Google searches within hours.
While the influx of activists around 2005 and 2006 led to a lot of dubious Wikipedia content, it was essentially welcomed by the Wikimedia Foundation, which measures its success in traffic – number of articles, number of edits, number of editors, number of page views – rather than article quality. Bitter and committed ideological fighting on Wikipedia, with articles changing to and fro constantly and incessant talk page arguments running to hundreds of thousands of words, did wonders for those metrics.
Wikipedia as a free Yellow Pages
Paid Wikipedia editing, the issue highlighted by many media outlets in recent months (see e.g. The battle to destroy Wikipedia’s biggest sockpuppet army, Is Wikipedia for Sale?, Are plastic surgeons nip/tucking ads into high-profile Wikipedia articles?, Is Wikipedia’s front page for sale?, Corruption in Wikiland? Paid PR scandal erupts at Wikipedia, Wales: Let’s ban Gibraltar-crazy Wikipedians for 5 years), also made its first appearance at that time: it was the first time that having a favourable Wikipedia article was worth someone’s money.
Today, almost any Wikipedia article on a company will be found on closer inspection to have been written at least in part by employees or PR agents of said company. (This applies even to articles on the Wikimedia Foundation itself and its business partners.)
Interested readers may want to review the contributions history of Wikipedia articles in such categories as Law firms established in the 20th century or Management consulting firms. They will find that most of these entries were quite obviously written by the companies’ employees or their agents – pseudonymous accounts that do little or nothing else in Wikipedia than work on articles related to the relevant business and its principals.
Once one company has a Wikipedia article, it is only natural that its competitors want to have a Wikipedia article too. A Wikipedia article just makes a business seem more important. A multi-million-dollar industry of paid editors and consultants has arisen to cater to this new need.
The English Wikipedia’s lax notability guidelines support such efforts: any business that has attracted a modest amount of press coverage qualifies for an entry in Wikipedia. Given that reviewing thousands of business entries is very boring to volunteers who are there for other reasons, Wikipedia has over the past ten years or so become an electronic version of the Yellow Pages – except that unlike a Yellow Pages ad, your entry in Wikipedia is free. You just have to write it yourself.
An obvious way to mitigate the problem would be to raise the bar for notability, as some other language versions of Wikipedia have done: the German Wikipedia, for example, only accepts articles about businesses that are of significant public interest. However, if the English Wikipedia were to follow suit, this would reduce both its article count (currently at 4.5 million) and its editor count considerably – and since “more is better”, it’s a solution that seems unlikely to be adopted in the near future.
Things are much the same for Wikipedia biographies: the threshold for inclusion is low, and a good number of Wikipedia’s roughly 650,000 biographies of living people are written or at least edited by their subjects. Given their Google ranking, Wikipedia biographies tend to generate an amount of traffic that is similar or superior to the subject’s own website, which means that no self-promoter can afford to be without one.
Sometimes, too, Wikipedia’s biographies are written or edited by people who dislike the biography subject for personal or ideological reasons: this is when Wikipedia crosses the line into defamation (see e.g. Revenge, ego and the corruption of Wikipedia, Wikipedia’s shame, The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose, Mayfair art dealer Mark Weiss in disgrace after admitting poison pen campaign against rival Philip Mould, Any political filth or personal libel can be hurled at the innocent, Detractors are trying to distort my Wikipedia profile: Payal Rohatgi).
Not so awesome!
Surely that’s not all?
There are of course other motivations for contributing: Wikipedia is a highly visible website, and anyone can participate in the knowledge that what they write will reach a huge audience – or at any rate a much larger audience than they would reach if they wrote on their blog, or personal website. Apart from the obvious propaganda value that has already been discussed above, there is an equally obvious ego gratification involved in having authored or part-authored the Internet’s most widely accessed reference text on a given topic. This option appeals most strongly to amateurs and fans – people who love a topic but lack the standing or qualifications required to publish their work through conventional channels such as an academic journal or book. Sometimes their work is excellent, and this is where the best parts of Wikipedia lie; frequently, of course, they overestimate their ability considerably or are outright cranks, with less felicitous results. But when it works, Wikipedians can and do justly take pride in a well-written article that makes an important topic accessible to a wide audience.
Wikipedia is also a community, and as in any similar online community there are important ways to measure and vie for social status – the number of edits an editor has made, the number of “Featured Articles”, “A-Class Articles” or “Good Articles” they have written, or whether an editor has been awarded “administrator” status. These metrics generate their own psychological dynamic that keeps people involved.
Wikipedia often contains faulty information and orthographical errors: a magnet for people who have an obsessive-compulsive need to correct people “who are wrong” on the Internet, famously satirised in an xkcd cartoon. Then there are vandals and those who fight them. To vandals, Wikipedia is just a source of amusement; to vandal fighters, undoing vandals’ edits is a means to feel useful, and another way to acquire social status within the Wikipedia community.
Self-indulgence or service of an educational mission?
Occasionally, real-world experts contribute to Wikipedia out of a sense of social responsibility: they see content that is substandard, and given Wikipedia’s reach would like to improve the content so that the public is not misinformed. But most genuine experts find editing Wikipedia a less than agreeable experience. They have to argue with ignoramuses and extremists, and whatever corrections they make may be undone by another editor who has far more time to spend on Wikipedia than they do. I know a number of professors who tried and gave up, resigning themselves to the fact that bringing Wikipedia content in their subject area up to scratch was more than they could do in their spare time.
None of this is what the Wikimedia Foundation will tell the public when describing its volunteer community. The official picture is one of a dedicated community imbued with enthusiasm for the idea of free knowledge, the idea of providing a free education to the disadvantaged. And there are no doubt Wikipedians who are motivated by just such ideals. But it is hardly the centre of gravity of Wikipedians’ collective efforts.
Looking at the list of Wikipedia articles that have won the site’s highest quality award, “Featured Article” status, we find all of 9 articles on mathematics – none of them on topics that would benefit the proverbial girl in Africa – versus 158 on video games. We find 12 articles in the entire field of language and linguistics, versus 81 articles on hurricanes. And we find that Wikipedia has 19 “Featured Articles” on highways and Interstates in Michigan, versus just 12 on all of philosophy and psychology combined.
Whatever Wikipedia as a community is doing, it is more of a vehicle for contributors’ self-indulgence than it is a concerted endeavour to bring free knowledge to the world.
(This blog post was originally published on March 2, 2014)