Wikipedia - The Number 5 Site on the Internet
This article is about the Wikipedia, one of the most dominant and popular sites on the internet. Wikipedia is a massive encyclopedia with articles that can be written and edited by everyone. The Wikipedia Encyclopedia spans almost every aspect of human knowledge, and there are versions in all of the most widely spoken languages of the world such as (English, Spanish, Chinese) as well as many obscure languages such as Wolof and Sinugboanon. There are even Wikipedia editions written in artificial languages such as Esperanto, Volapuk and nearly dead languages such as Latin.
The reach and depth of Wikipedia in all of its different languages is truly amazing. It is rare to type a term in the site's search engine without pulling up results on the most obscure and esoteric topics. Even more importantly, Wikipedia articles consistently show up in the top 10 search results on Google, regardless of the search term. This means that in essence Google is acting as a feeder to Wikipedia content, and this coupled with the popularity of Google, means that what is found on Wikipedia is most likely going to be used to answer any research question and will, for good or bad, influence society's body of knowledge.
Amazingly, considering that anyone can edit and add information to existing pages, most articles are accurate and well written - although there have been notorious cases of political candidates and corporations editing articles to suit their agendas. When Sarah Palin made a gaff on camera about the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and the circumstances leading up to it, she refused to acknowledge that she had made a mistake and instead her supporters attempted to edit the Wikipedia article to change history to make it fit Palin's version of the truth. Palin was quickly outed and other Wikipedia volunteers restored sanity to the historical record by removing all Palinisms.
This incident illustrates both the strength and weakness of Wikipedia. It has grown to be such a force in internet research that for millions of high school and college students, Wikipedia's version of the truth is the only truth they know. Control Wikipedia and you can revise history.
What makes Wikipedia susceptible to biased editing, pranks and vandalism is also its main protection against misinformation: for every vandal, political operative and propagandist there are hundreds of purists who will defend the integrity of the articles and restore the accuracy of the texts.
The Two Levels of Homepages on Wikipedia.org
There are in fact two levels of starting pages on Wikipedia: the first home page is seen when one types in the web address Wikipedia.org. This page presents a search bar, which by default searches the English version of Wikipedia, and a circular arrangement of the largest wikededias in various language.
The second home page is language specific: each wikipedia is assigned a subdomain corresponding to its language and each Wikipedia has a home page in its native language.
Thus, getting to the English wikipedia homepage requires you to actually type or click a link to: http://en.wikipedia.org. The "en" in front of the Wikipedia domain is called a subdomain and in this case it designates the language of that wikipedia, which is English. Wikipedias in foreign languages have other home pages, each resident in their own subdomain. For example, the Wikipedia home page for the Spanish language Wikipedia is at http://es.wikipedia.org. There are also many other homepages on Wikipedia, each devoted to a single language.
Some wikipedias have only a few thousand articles, while others such as the English Wikipedia have millions of articles.
The Wikipedia home page features a new article every day and this is a good place to start one's exploration of the Wikipedia universe. Simply click on the article and begin reading. As you do you will find an large number of names, words and definitions, hyperlinked to other articles. These links will lead you away from the main topic, sometimes to other related articles but more often than not the only reason that the article you are reading links to another article is because they have a word in common. So, if you are reading about a historical battle, the article may mention that one side was armed with cross bows. The reference to cross bows will link to an article about cross bows. That article in turn will no doubt talk about the historical development of the weapon and how it was an improvement over the simple bow an arrow. More articles will branch off on the subject of arrows, weaponry, feathers used for arrows, the type of wood used for the weapons and so on. Click on the link about the wood, and next thing you know you are following another link to an article about a certain forest were that wood can be found. Read that article and pretty soon you will be following links to information about forestry, micro climates and so on ad infinitum.
The beauty of the Wikipedia homepage is that it is a virtual gateway into an online Library of Alexandria. However, it does have its flaws.
The Wikipedia Effect
It says something about the sophistication of most Internet users, or rather the lack of sophistication, that they appear to be becoming increasingly dependent upon search engine's to the most basic information. Someone recently wrote an article which asked "is Google making us dumb?"
The answer appears to be yes. Sadly it is not just Google which is softening our minds and analytical skills by making is dependent on finding everything within two or three clicks of a search engine result. Wikipedia and its thousands of non-peer reviewed articles presents both a bonanza of knowledge ranging from the trivial to the esoteric, but also a threat to the accuracy and verify ability of encyclopedic facts.
Articles on Wikipedia are written by anonymous contributors who hide behind usernames. Some are well-meaning aficionados of the subject while others are partisans out to promote a particular agenda or political view. The power of the written word is such that when we read an article, especially one which sounds scholarly or authoritative, we assume that it is accurate. Many articles on Wikipedia now support their statements by reference to published sources such as web pages or magazine articles.
The addition of footnotes and references give Wikipedia the illusion of authoritativeness. By reference to other authorities, Wikipedia articles again a certain trust factor. The presumption is that if other writers agree with the statements in the Wikipedia article, then the Wikipedia article must be correct. This appeal to authority, is circular. Wikipedia enhances its scholarliness by referencing other articles, but the accuracy of these articles is not proven, but rather presumed by the fact that Wikipedia deigns them worthy of being linked to.
Very few of us ever check the links that are attached to the footnotes. Yet these links are supposedly what keeps a Wikipedia article from being merely a subjective exposition of someone's view of the world. I have occasionally clicked on the reference links and I have been surprised to find that in many cases the links are dead, which makes it impossible to determine whether not the source material that went into the writing of the Wikipedia article was accurate or not, and in many other cases the web page cited as a reference appears amateurish and peer poorly written. Thus the quality of the Wikipedia article become suspect because the supporting documentation is of doubtful accuracy and impartiality.
Another flaw with the Wikipedia system is that it is a collection of articles which have grown organically over the years. Users of Wikipedia contribute articles appeared while there have been attempts to focus contributions on areas of Wikipedia that lacked depth, most articles are written as a labor of love and reflect the particular interests of the Wikipedia community as well as its biases.
The Encyclopedia That Isn't An Encyclopedia
Wikipedia is unlike other encyclopedias, whether those encyclopedias be online or on paper, in that its articles focus on subjects which would not merit so much coverage in a standard encyclopedia. There is an unusual number of Wikipedia articles devoted to cultural and sub-cultural issues such as subsets of Anime, manga, video games, and television shows. These articles are often a treasure trove of facts and data about these niches, but objectively speaking many Wikipedia articles focus on ephemera such as the plot summaries of all the episodes of various cancelled and long forgotten television series, scenes from the Three Stooges, and other cultural phenomena that will probably not have a lasting impact beyond this generation.
On the other hand, important subjects such as wars, biographies of statesmen, and the history of countries are often given less attention and deserve only short Wikipedia articles, at least in the mind of Wikipedia writers.
The problem with Wikipedia is that it presents a seductive source of knowledge which is in many ways better than Google. Google simply provides links to other web sites and once you click on those links, you move away from Google. Wikipedia has perhaps inadvertently achieved the holy Grail of web design, which is the keep its users on the site as much as possible.
When a person visits the Wikipedia homepage, they are offered the choice of finding the article they are looking for by using Wikipedia's own search engine or clicking links from featured articles. Each Wikipedia article is hyperlinked to other Wikipedia articles. One can research a topic by drilling down from one article to related subjects, almost forever.
Unlike search engines such as Google, which simply offers a search bar which then produces search results, and which by design leads the user away from the search engine, the Wikipedia leads the user into a maze of Wikipedia articles which go on forever.
The beauty of Wikipedia is that instead of being a search engine which opens the gates of the Internet to the searcher, Wikipedia draws the user from whatever article you first land on, into a vast and largely uncharted maze of articles, facts, and arcane knowledge. Once within the Wikipedia universe, the user may click through dozens if not more of articles on the subject they were researching. The seductiveness of Wikipedia lies in the fact that it not only offers the user answers the question that they were researching, but its hyperlinks lead off into all directions to articles that are only marginally related to the article you're looking at. But that is in fact the beauty of it. You never know which direction you will end up in and what area of undiscovered knowledge you will uncover through serendipity. In fact, you can even explore Wikipedia by asking it to display a random page.
Wikipedia as the Opposite of Google
Herein lies another major difference between a search engine such as the Google and the various Wikipedias. Google attempts to organize knowledge automatically and provide relevant search results which match the search term. Google's search algorithms meticulously catalogue the Web and strip the search results and rank them by relevance and other factors. Google attempts to narrow your focus.
On the other hand, Wikipedia is a portal to serendipitous knowledge. Sure, people are drawn to Wikipedia homepage to find the answer to a question. For example how old is my favorite actor? When did such a such a battle occur? But once they are there, a multitude of articles beckon and draw the user ever deeper from the whatever Wikipedia page they first landed on to an infinite progression of articles touching on all phases of human existence.
One of the things that has always amazed me about Wikipedia is that almost every search on the Wikipedia a search engine produces relevant articles. It is becoming increasingly rare for Wikipedia to return a result of "no article found". When no result is found, Wikipedia invites the user to write about the subject himself. This is very democratic of Wikipedia though one must ask if the user was searching for information about that subject, how much can they actually know themselves?
In my view the Wikipedia homepage represents a new form of search engine which has been developed organically. Unlike Google and the other search engines, Wikipedia does not develop its content according to a logical algorithm or by harvesting other websites for information.
Search engines gather their content by sending out spiders or bots which read the content of all the websites on the internet. They follow links from one site to another, and then they analyze the content and meaning of what they read so that they can then display a list of sites which are relevant to the search term. Search engines have no control over the content of the websites that they catalog, but the power of google has meant that many webmasters adjust the content and look of their websites to please the google gods, for fear that they will not get the coveted top ten position in the search results.
Wikipedia is different: its members produce the content, edit it, debate whether to keep or trash an article. Ultimately, Wikipedia is the anti-google: a human edited, ad-free search engine that both manufactures and displays its own content. It will be interesting to see which of these competing models prevails in the end.