Wikipedia And Its Contradictory Open System

On: September 19, 2009
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About Rutger van den Berg
Rutger is a 23 year old New Media student living in Amsterdam. In March of 2009 he graduated in communication science at the University of Amsterdam, During his master he specialized in Popular Culture & Media Entertainment. Currently He's deepening his knowledge of New Media, studying for his second masters degree at the University of Amsterdam


Wikipedia is a frequently discussed Internet website. Some people are lyrical about it’s possibilities and future, where others seriously doubt Wikipedia’s credibility and its open “everybody is allowed to contribute” system. Even in the scientific world opinions differ strongly. In this post I will discuss Wikipedia’s open system and try to explain why this system in time could become very successful.

Recently I created my first Wikipedia article. Before this experience I always looked at Wikipedia from a user’s perspective, simply searching for information inside this online encyclopedia. Of course I was always a bit critical about the reliability of the information I found, because there always seems to be a chance a voluntary Wikipedia contributor is wrong about something. This particular remark seems to be the main point of critique on Wikipedia. How does Wikipedia maintain a high level of credibility? The openness of the Wikipedia system is both its strongest and weakest feature. The content of virtually every page can be edited by anyone, with those changes immediately visible to subsequent visitors. This participation model has resulted in a highly popular site with a large amount of content. Furthermore, much of the content is of surprisingly high quality, although vandalism, inaccuracies, user disputes, and other quality issues do continue to plague the site[1]. As Thomas Chesney (2006) says: ‘Its popularity has never been questioned, although some have speculated about its authority. By its own admission, Wikipedia contains errors’[2].

My fresh experience as a Wikipedia writer showed me Wikipedia does the best it can do to maintain a high level within their articles. They have very strict protocols concerning acknowledgements, linguistic usage, authorship and so on. As I personally experienced they also check every new entry. The reason I did not link to my Wikipedia entry at the beginning of this blog post, is that I just discovered my entry was deleted an hour after I wrote it. The reason for this somewhat harsh measure was an apparently wrong way of referring to the original author of a part of the text. I’m still working on fixing that. Unless this slight dent in my ego it shows the people behind Wikipedia do as much as they can to maintain a high level of credibility. Still it is possible for biased, out of date or incorrect information to be posted on Wikipedia. But as proponents of the website claim: “because so many people are contributing, the content will become more reliable as time passes[2]”. Chesney’s research shows us that the accuracy of Wikipedia is high. However this doesn’t say Wikipedia can be considered a totally reliable source, according to the experts, back in 2006 thirteen percent of the articles contain mistakes[1].

The statement that the collective contribution of many people will make Wikipedia’s content more reliable in time is an interesting one. It’s a confirmation of trust in Wikipedia’s collective wisdom. When a lot of people work on the same thing their collaboration will create a collective product, which can be the highest achievable outcome of their shared knowledge. Of course this collective contribution can also lead to conflicts on the more or less indefinable subjects about which opinions may vary. Kitur et al’s1 research shows that these conflicts are a big part of the Wikipedia activities. Although the social collaborative knowledge system grows, relatively less strain is being put in the creation of new articles, but more in indirect activities like discussion, editing and maintenance. Although online conflicts are often viewed in a negative context, it can also lead to positive benefits such as resolving disagreements, establishing consensus, clarifying issues, and strengthening common values[3]. From this perspective even conflicts resulting from collective contribution will boost the level of Wikipedia’s content. As we’ve seen before, according to Kitur et al’s research, users put a lot of effort in optimising Wikipedia’s existing content. So theoretically, due to its open system, Wikipedia could become the best possible source of information in the world. But for now there’s definitely still some collective work to do to convince everybody of Wikipedia’s great potential.

[1] Kitur, A. Suh, B. Pendleton, B. & Chi, E. (2007) He says, she says: conflict and coordination in Wikipedia. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

[2] Chesney, T. (2006) An empirical examination of Wikipedia’s credibility. First Monday, 11(11)

[3] Franco, V. Piirto, R. Hu, H. Y. Lewenstein, B. V. Underwood, R., & Vidal, N. K. (1995) Anatomy of a flame: conflict and community building on the Internet. in Kitur, A. Suh, B. Pendleton, B. & Chi, E. (2007) He says, she says: conflict and coordination in Wikipedia. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems

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