So just give me a gut reaction before I go any further.
Wikipedia : True or False? Can you trust it?
Wikipedia describes itself as: “…the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet”.
The English language version alone claims to have 5.6 million articles – there’s even a counter. Globally it’s more like 40 million, getting 18 billion page views a month. Puts my Twitter feed to shame!
(in fact it puts even US singer Katy Perry’s Twitter following to shame – and according to Wiki she is Twitter’s most popular person with 109m followers)
So. Just look back at what I’ve said. All that info at my fingertips. All of course sourced from Wiki in the last 60 minutes. So are those facts, erm facts, or just wikiality? Are you going to take my word that I’ve accurately quoted Wiki… blimey suddenly its a quagmire.
The thing is that if you search “How many articles are there on wikipedia”, the first thing you will find will be this :
Yup a Wiki entry. And below it on Google FIVE more Wiki entries. And that’s why it matters to talk about it. Search for ANYTHING on the internet and the chances are the first few entries will be Wiki articles. And let’s face it who can be bothered scrolling down the page 😉
And unlike the Encyclopaedia Britannica (hands up anyone who has this at home? An edition published in the last 10 years?) Wikipedia is written by … you and me.
Anyone can register for free and start creating and editing entries straight away.
And that leads us to that joke among journalists, researchers, and fact-wranglers generally, that “47% of statistics are made up”. Or is it 73.9%?
Let me tell you about a strange encounter I had with Wikipedia about ten years ago. I was the proud owner of Carlos Santana’s 1996 album Smooth. So imagine my surprise when I was doing some research about the Nottingham lace industry for BBC TV’s Flog It!
And the internet threw up (no, this is not going where you’re thinking) it threw up Black Lace – the UK party pop band (1979: seventh in the Eurovision Song Contest; 1982 The Birdie Song; 1984 Agadoo).
I was drawn to the Wiki entry for a moment, remembering the cringe-worthy band, when something caught my eye. A list of the founding members included one Carlos Santana. WHAT??!! Deep sigh.
EITHER, just as his US band was making the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, Mr Santana popped over to Wakefield to help the lads go professional.
Then while touring Europe with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in 1984 he popped over again to knock out Agadoo (#2 in the UK chart).
So that was it. Wikipedia repeats garbage. And can’t be trusted.
The only good thing is that as a registered user and bone fide (unchecked and unsupervised) member of the Wiki writing staff (ie someone with a computer) I was able to save the day and delete the reference to his mightiness Carlos Santana.
FACT BOX: If you want solid reliable stats an anything... Go here : Bureau of made up statistics Apologies. For real truth about stats: Try Tim Harford on BBC Radio Four’s More or Less.
SO… now you know. I am a registered writer and editor of articles on Wikipedia.
Is it my solo mission to check and correct 5.6m articles one by one? Well no. Or maybe (we’ll get to that later).
The truth is that while many journos will sneer, plenty of people in the “fact’ business DO use Wikipedia. It is easy to access. It does contain lots of info.
It is a great starting place. I really believe that. But like any single source – don’t rely on it, and don’t do what I’ve done in this article and quote it verbatim. Endlessly. Do what Frank Warner* told you – and check yer facts. Get multiple sources.
How does this work in practice? As stated above – a lot of internet searches throw up a Wiki entry. And the rather quaint Wiki style means they are full of “citations” (references, to you and me). Yes, sadly much of it is from a US perspective (the founder Jimmy Wales is American). But the good news is someone else has put a little thought into the subject you’re interested in, and at least given you a few ideas.
They might be mistaken. They might be quoting an unreliable source. Or they might have just made it all up.
Wiki is not primary source. It’s a signpost. And a very useful one.
Roll forward to 2018 and as I set up this blog and my website (plug plug). I started looking at other ways to raise my online profile. And like may millions before me thought I could write a page about myself on Wikipedia. Why not? I know all the facts (including the ones to keep quiet about).
It might mean anyone Googling me would find a Wiki entry, which I had written. Egotistical. Conceited. Well no, it’s just about being “out there” (or technically “out HERE”). OK Yes.
And its been this recent adventure into Wiki that has made me think again.
We’ve established that anyone can create and edit Wiki entries. A democracy of information? Dangerous huh? Giving the great unwashed the chance to mess with FACTS. Instead of letting just reputable journos and politicians own them. Madness that way lies, surely? (See where I’m going here… ?)
I started reading a bit of Wiki how-to and advice and found once you get going it’s pretty easy to go into any article and make a small edit. So writing a Phil Kerswell Wiki article would be a piece of cake then? Well no. It turns out Wiki has RULES … lots of rules. Articles have to be about out people or places that are “notable” (I’ll come back to that later). And any article needs to have “citations” (that word again) to back it up.
But among 5.6million English language articles.. who’s going to notice little old me?
It had to worth trying. But first to learn how Wiki works. I decided to start small. I picked a subject close to my heart – rock climbing. And used my wordsmith (ahem) skills to improve the existing entry with a minor rewrite.
Staying with the climbing theme I realise there was no entry for my local climbing centre – a converted church in Bristol, run by Undercover Rock. But there was one for the building it’s in – St Werbugh’s Church. So next I edited the church entry to add detail about UCR.
All good – and the entries are still there as edited by yours truly a month later:
Sit back and feel proud. I’m a Wikipedian!!
So if the church has an entry, I thought, why not UCR, the climbing centre itself. Now I was getting bold. Actually creating BRAND NEW article page for UCR, with some links to climbing organisations, clubs, the BMC. To make it look professional and fit the Wiki house style.
Written. Published. Relax. I could feel the Phil Kerswell Wikipedia entry coming up very soon.
And then I got an email.
“Proposed deletion of Undercover Rock”
Long story short. One of Wikipedia’s 33m registered English language users had decided Undercover Rock was not “notable” and my article did not have good enough external references.
Hang on – someone was policing MY article.
It was like being back on my first weekly newspaper The Crawley Observer with the sub editor throwing my typewritten copy back at me and saying it needed fact checking, and more backbone.
What? Editorial Standards? On Wikipedia? Shocker.
Enough. You will have your own thoughts. These are my conclusions:
WIKI CONCLUSIONS 1. Wikipedia actually IS a good first port of call for information, and ideas for further reading. Just don’t rely on it. 2. Many pages are actually written by experts on the subject. Look at some of the academic articles. 3. Does a self-policed democratic encyclopaedia work? Mmmmm kinda.
My journalism has been all about the pursuit of knowledge. Usually explaining and spreading the word about other people’s expertise/experiences, through newspaper articles, radio and TV.
But it’s also about enjoyment in sharing the few things I really do know about (rebuilding a 1950s cuckoo clock, replacing the window regulator on a 1994 Audi S2)
What’s that got to do with Wikipedia?
Well given that it’s out there, and is so often the first result in an internet search, maybe rolling up my sleeves and joining the mass ranks of contributors means I can help police the “facts” and make sure articles where I do know something can be as accurate as possible. Maybe all us fact lovers should think about contributing to Wikipedia. For the sake of the truth.
Just a thought.
Coming soon: Five facts about fact checking. Check it out.
NB 1: I laughed when I saw one of the people who had questioned my UCR wiki article. Among pages he had created was one about “truffle vodka” which informs us it is “a variant of vodka that is infused with truffles”. No shit Sherlock. Very “notable”.
NB 2: My Undercover Rock article is still a work in progress.
NB 3: The Phil Kerswell Wiki page… to follow soon. I just need to make it convincing!
NB 4: The wiki article counter is fascinating. Someone out there must be deleting articles at a rate of knots, ‘cos the counter keeps going up and DOWN. I just hope it’s not the same article being deleted and then re-written. And I hope it’s not one of mine!