Wikipedia: The Sum of All Human Knowledge in One Place
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Throughout the internet’s history, many websites have risen and fallen, exerting their respective influences on the culture of the internet and society in general. These sites have obviously differed in purpose, subject, and accessibility, and this diversity is what has allowed the internet to grow. One particular sector which the internet has allowed for greater access is information and education. Before the introduction of the internet, a great deal of information was inaccessible to the general population, being stored in universities and under restrictions which prevented access, sort of like a non-internet restriction or paywall. With the dawn of the 21st century, however, a challenger to this system arrived: Wikipedia. Wikipedia, developed in 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, held one goal: giving everyone free access to all human knowledge through a massive online encyclopedia. This philosophy was a successor to Wales and Sanger’s previous endeavor Nupedia, which failed to make an impact. After it took off in the early 2000s, Wikipedia faced scrutiny for its open-access open-editing format and was criticized for its factual inaccuracy. However, after 2010, Wikipedia saw an exponential increase in access and quality, as more people began accessing the site. Wikipedia began to influence the internet culture it itself was a product of. The result was a more favorable look on the spread of information and an increase in the credibility of Wikipedia, to the point that major platforms have begun to use Wikipedia as a fact-checking source to stop the flow of misinformation. As a result, it would not be an understatement to say Wikipedia is currently one of the most impactful sites on the internet and, may indeed be one of the most impactful sites in the history of the internet. This site serves to analyze Wikipedia using the Circuit of Culture, with each section being dedicated to a particular aspect, to properly show the overall impact that Wikipedia has had during its existence
So, what is Wikipedia’s identity? What has influenced it throughout its life? According to the co-founder of Wikipedia, the mission of WIkipedia is to create a free online repository of knowledge, available to all without any explicit fees included. Wales himself described the idea in a quote taken from an interview: “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing” . This commitment perfectly summarizes the original identity of Wikipedia. Throughout the years, and through the influence of numerous entities, Wikipedia has grown its identity. Rather than simply an online database on the internet, it represents the collection, categorization, and dissemination of information. As Wikipedia is completely user-driven and open-source, it has developed an identity of a collaborative environment of people looking to share and learn on the internet and contribute. As a result, Wikipedia culture was formed and gained a parallel meaning to collaborative and shared knowledge. However, Wikipedia gained a different identity during the first decade of its life, Wikipedia was seen in the education and academic worlds as an untrustworthy source with insufficient information combined with a lack of regulation or verification. Due to this, most of Wikipedia’s early coverage by journals and studies done on its reliability put Wikipedia in a bad light. Subsequently, Wikipedia was seen as a source for fast yet potentially untrue information in its early days and gained this identity.
However, in the present day (and indeed over the past decade), Wikipedia’s identity has once again undergone a marked shift, possibly inspired by increased usage and prominence. With increased fact-checking, a greater drive for sharing information, and more contributors (and even some increases in diversity of contributions), Wikipedia has seen a rise in usage, improving its quality as a result of higher traffic. A testament to this is the post-2018 partnership between Wikipedia and prominent platforms such as Twitter and YouTube. This partnership sees Wikipedia being used as a reliable source to fact-check misinformation on a wide range of topics, from scientific proofs to conspiracy theories to politics. This new identity which Wikipedia gained is most likely most in-line with what the founders envisioned when they wanted open source information. It clearly shows Wikipedia’s improved standing in the eyes of the world. This new identity shows how great of an influence Wikipedia has gained in today’s world. The engineers of this project (the editors, administrators, moderators, and others who keep Wikipedia running) have done their part in ensuring that this culture and identity continue and evolve in order to keep up with the times and the needs of society.
Wikipedia can be considered a product, but it is more sensible to consider the information that one can find on the site as the product. Wikipedia itself was developed by Wales and Sanger in order to act as the storage for all of the knowledge humanity had amassed. As a resultBy definition and representation, Wikipedia is a nonprofit website, which is completely free, open access, and editable by anyone. This means that the production of Wikipedia (or the information contained by Wikipedia) is completely user-contributed. The material, however, must be properly sourced in order to contribute it to Wikipedia and “produce” it (otherwise the material posted will be subject to regulation). Wikipedia’s production system was intentionally set up so that it would not officially be subject to any external entities or forces, emphasizing a structure and culture of worldwide user information contribution with no bias or hidden agenda. This system discourages bias posting (through guidelines and regulation) and encourages increased collaboration to contribute information. Wikipedia is a registered nonprofit in order to encourage an unbiased, purely informative view. It does take donations from $3 to $100 form users which are ostensibly to provide for the editors and employees, although the Wikimedia Foundation has an annual revenue of over $120 million with a $30 million net asset increase after expenses are subtracted (figures from the Wikimedia foundation Wikipedia page). However, the actual production of the material remains free of any necessary donations or financial requirements.
The consumption aspect of the circle of culture is probably what Wikipedia is most known for. Wikipedia’s entire purpose is the assembly of information in order to provide the general public with the information for free. In this situation, the consumption of information through Wikipedia is actually the consumption of Wikipedia as a whole, therefore, in order to analyze consumption, both outward appearance (how the user perceives functionality) and actual function (functionality itself) need to be addressed. In terms of Wikipedia’s general design, not much has changed throughout the years. Wikipedia in the early 2000s looks very similar to Wikipedia currently (only slight changes utilizing Web 2.0’s increase in interactivity, allowing media and captions to be added were changed as far as a user would be concerned from a visual standpoint). In fact, Wikipedia’s simple approach to display, emphasizing functionality, has become representative of (and contributed to the identity of) Wikipedia as a site. Regarding the other side of consumption (actual functionality), Wikipedia has evolved quite a bit. Although 2006 Wikipedia only had 1 million English articles, 2020 Wikipedia has more than 6 times that. Wikipedia also has shown a massive increase in internet traffic, consistently being among the top 10-15 sites being accessed yearly by internet users. This shows the expanding popularity of Wikipedia as well as its increasing reliability (which has been trending more upward since the start of the last decade). The integration of Wikipedia by platforms such as YouTube and Twitter has also indirectly increased consumption of Wikipedia and its product of information. Consumption of Wikipedia also allows for cultural changes. Consumers of Wikipedia may be inclined to take a deeper look at the material which they consume and, as a result, be able to contribute back to Wikipedia in the form of edits. Situations like these would mean that Wikipedia has perpetuated its culture and affirmed its self-determined identity, which connects with the consumption aspect of the circuit of culture, showing the interconnectedness of this web of culture.
How does Wikipedia present itself to the world? And what does it want people to see it as? Both of these questions address the representation aspect of the circle of culture, which also relates very strongly with the identity aspect of the site. Wikipedia represents itself according to its mission statement of providing quality information without paywalls and in an unbiased manner. To its users WIkipedia represents a source of information which has seen its reliability increase over time, accompanied by an increase in its usage. In institutes of education, Wikipedia is criticized for incomplete citations, potentially inaccurate information, and at times for plagiarism risks. In academia, different people have different opinions and numerous studies have been done (mostly at two separate peaks, one closer to the establishment of Wikipedia and one closer to the present day) exploring the accuracy of Wikipedia and its use as a source. Many of these studies initially found a high percentage of errors and some bias in Wikipedia and its articles, but the studies which were performed after 2010 have shown an upward trend in the reliability of Wikipedia and little to no bias in articles. Wikipedia also represents itself as a reliable source of information, which has been more accepted in the past few years which has influenced the culture of the internet as a whole. As Wikipedia has made this push to achieve the mission held by the founders, major platforms have shifted to include Wikipedia as a means of fact-checking. This really speaks to Wikipedia’s attempts to present itself as a reliable source of information and the general culture it has shaped through people taking Wikipedia’s information as reliable, unbiased information.
Regulation on Wikipedia has been and is a topic of constant attention (and, at times, controversy). There are two forms of content control on Wikipedia; one done by Wikipedia Administrators or editors (“in house”), and the other by third parties (usually nations or other overarching bodies of authority not affiliated with Wikipedia) blocking certain terms on Wikipedia, or blocking the site as a whole.
The first form of regulation involves moderation by administrators and bots on WIkipedia, usually employed on a delayed basis (called the procrastination system) after the initial post/edit is submitted. This system employs bots to check for errors primarily in spelling and grammar, while administrators and moderators check pages which may contain factual inaccuracies. This system is a double-edged sword, as it can cut out a large portion of time for the verification process, allowing for faster and more efficient posting of information; however, this is harmful as falsehoods or harmful misinformation can spread unchecked for quite a bit of time after editing or posting.
The second form of regulation is external regulation (not “in house”). Although Wikipedia claims that it’s 100% free from any political/authoritarian influence or bias, there have been attempts to alter this by external entities (although this isn’t regulation of Wikipedia by Wikipedia, it enters into the general umbrella of regulation as it involves content regulation on Wikipedia, which is integral to the exchange of ideas and culture on Wikipedia). Numerous countries have attempted to force-regulate content, either through edits or bans on editing or access to the website. A prominent example of this is China, which has banned Wikipedia and criminalized access. Despite the positive impacts of some regulation, Wikipedia’s detractors have criticized a perceived “shift towards authoritarianism” or, at the other end, misinformation based on open-access. This has influenced the culture of Wikipedia while also calling into question its presentation of itself as an uncontrolled, neutral source. Wikipedia’s reputation for being unbiased and neutral has inspired a culture of emphasizing the factual nature of everything over biases. Although content regulation has been encouraged to improve the quality and reliability of Wikipedia, some feel that this is harmful to the “open-access” culture Wikipedia has encouraged over the nearly two decades that it has been around.