My Love-Hate Relationship with Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I really do. Perhaps it’s its power to explain random curiosities. Maybe its the seductive ability to take you on an intellectual choose-your-own-adventure journey via its enchanting blue hyperlinks. Maybe it’s because I love challenging my friends to the Wikipedia Game. Most of all I think it’s because of the project’s simple mission: to create a collection of all human knowledge.

This task is made possible by the open rules of Wikipedia — an encyclopedia that anyone can edit. This often breeds doubt in its reliability as a resource, and before we continue, I want to squash that out entirely. As early as 2005, Nature published a study that found that “Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries.” A 2014 study found that Wikipedia’s information about pharmacology was 99.7% accurate and 83.8% complete when compared to a pharmacology textbook. Indeed the journal Science has even used Wikipedia as a resource in its online publications. Anecdotally, I can affirm to you my faith in Wikipedia’s reliability as a serious academic resource because I’ve seen the ruthless dedication of Wikipedians to treat it as such.

Who are these Wikipedians, you ask? And why should I care? A “Wikipedian” is anyone with a registered account on the website; it requires only an email and password. The English language encyclopedia has 29 million Wikipedians as of this essay’s publishing — 99.6% of which have not contributed at all in the last month. The flip side of this massive noncommittal membership, however, is a very real and surprisingly menacing army of supremely-dedicated Wikipedians. They are largely responsible for how Wikipedia looks to the reader, in its organization and approval of content.

Together, these dedicated Wikipedians act as an editorial college with rules for proper editing and publication. They have not only created a community for themselves, a wonderful resource for others, but they have fashioned a legitimate and complex social operation, with multiple non-global languages and a sometimes tyrannical hierarchy with entry opportunities for only the most dedicated of newcomers. Welcome to the back side of Wikipedia.

Until recently, in order to edit an article on Wikipedia, you needed to know a very basic form of computer coding language. (A beta version where editing can be done on the reading page, eliminating the coding aspect, is currently in testing.) Entering the Wikipedia community, then, required a decent bit of dedication to the “Project” — what Wikipedia sometimes calls itself. One needs to learn the language of the software before changing anything of decent substance.

This is only the first language required to become a custodian of the bank of human knowledge. For a “free encyclopedia,” the rules one must follow are frankly nauseating, and nearly all new editors inevitably break several of them.

The licensing page for the Michigan State University Spartans helmet logo on Wikipedia

Take for instance adding logos to articles of companies or athletic teams. When you want to add an image to Wikipedia, you must know a considerable amount of legal jargon to secure proper licensing for your image. An example: the Michigan State University helmet logo (above). Since the logo is complicated (it cannot be crafted from basic geometry — unlike, say, University of Michigan’s comparatively simple block M), it is not a free-use logo. This means that in addition to the logo’s Wikimedia license, it needs a new Use Rationale for every single article that uses it. For a newbie Wikipedian, this could mean having soldiers of the Wikipedian army undo their (seemingly productive) edits, leaving cryptic messages that read:

What the heck is WP:NFC? It’s the Non-Free Content species of a plethora of Wikipedia policies that the Wikipedian army both created and actively enforce either themselves or by the legion of bots that they also created to patrol the Wikipedia wilderness in their stead.

Part of a Wikipedian’s user page displaying their accrued barnstars

By now you’re probably getting tired of me calling these passionate Wikipedians an army because, come on, they aren’t. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Like any good military, these Wikipedians don’t just fight for what they believe in, they also award each other with five-pointed medals as signs of gratitude for particularly notable feats. They’re called barnstars (or WP:STAR, WP:*), and there are a bajillion different kinds of them. While the barnstars themselves aren’t really a problem, some Wikipedians use them as an image enhancer more than they’re actually worth. Order of the Superior Scribe? Please. Unlike a real army, however, Wikipedians do not report to a hierarchy of command. Senior contributors might argue with novice contributors about something, using their barnstar decoration as a magical value-augmentor, but the reality is that the two editors are equal members in the eyes of the Project and need to cooperate as such.

Fluency in Wikipedia’s languages doesn’t ensure other Wikipedians will always play nice, however. One of my favorite regular contributions to the Project is Infoboxes — those boxes (below) that appear on the upper right-hand corner of many articles. While I happen to think Infoboxes are incredibly useful because they display the essential information from an article at a quick glance, some users do not. To be fair, I only ran into resistance once: I attempted to insert “Generation” infoboxes (including things like approximate dates of births, prominent members, and defining events) on pages for Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, etc. While I accompanied the edits that some other Wikipedians suggested, the Guardian of the Page — I’ll explain more below — was not a fan, deleting the entire suite, and, for lack of better phrasing, banishing me from their Kingdom of Generations!

Infobox on Wikipedia’s Wikipedia entry as seen July 2016

I fled their kingdom (To this day, there are no infoboxes on any generation-related articles.). Wikipedia Kingdoms are the informal result of when a person becomes a Wikipedian for the sole purpose of safeguarding articles about their favorite topics. Wikipedia enables this by allowing users to “follow” articles for notifications when edits are made. This is useful on pages that are particularly prone to vandalism, but can be cumbersome for others. If the same Wikipedian dominates the “View History” page, they are a Guardian of the Page, and you’re in for a bad time if you disrespect their royal court. Mind you, these Kingdoms are rare, and actually against the “law” of the Wikipedian community — the Guardian in my story is currently serving a one-year access block due to “very long term disruptive editing.”

At least these Kingdoms are usually stable. That’s more than can be said for the roughly 100 articles put up for deletion every day. Some deletions are quite merited, but some Wikipedians “delete” quite liberally. Think, for example: how much individual “significance” is needed to to merit a biographical page? Does global significance necessarily trump local significance? Artistic or athletic over academic or non-profit? These questions and more are largely answered by the (84% male, 20% American, but that’s a whole other story) Wikipedian army, and new articles often get nominated for deletion at the emotional expense of their equally new Wikipedian contributors. Who knows how of these spurred editors may have gone on to become dedicated Wikipedians?

So what’s the moral of my story? Am I trying to discourage lay readers from becoming Wikipedians. Absolutely not! Indeed, I implore readers to become Wikipedians yourselves, knowing that it will not be easy all of the time, but that dedication in the goal of the Project eventually triumphs. Like a democracy, Wikipedia requires eternal vigilance. I love Wikipedia. All Wikipedians do. And at the end of the day, let’s remember that the alternative is, an expensive, less-accessible, Britannica, and count our blessings. No offense, EB.

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