Wikipedia is important: it currently the sixth most popular site globally (Alexa, 2012b); it is disproportionately popular amongst school and undergraduate aged groups; and shows a high number of visits from school locations (Alexa, 2012b). The article was enlightening about the ‘backroom scenes’ of Wikipedia, a view also expressed widely in the forum. The article considers positive and negative aspects of the way that Wikipedia works. “Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It is fact-encirclingly huge, and it is idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking and full of simmering controversies - and it is free, and it is fast.” (Baker, 2008). However “Some articles are vandalised a lot. On January 11 this year, the entire fascinating entry on the aardvark … was replaced with "one ugly animal"; in February the aardvark was briefly described as a "medium-sized inflatable banana"” (Barker 2008).
Barker describes the way that articles may be vandalized, or subject to zealous editing. Ironically the article has no citations to support the argument that this is a widespread problem for Wikipedia entries, to the extent that its (widespread) use in learning contexts should be discouraged. As one forum contributor said “I am a little surprised about how many roles people can have and that vandalism really is such a big problem. I mean, today you have to be really "lucky" to find a vandalised article” (Mikkel). The article and the forum gave me food for thought, both in the way that I use Wikipedia myself, and the way that it can form part of my teaching.
The extent of the problems may not be as big as Baker suggests. The first issue is that, just as Wikipedia needs to be seen in the light of it being a publicly editable encyclopaedia, Baker’s article is from the ‘magazine’ pages of newspaper. It may have been intended as much to entertain as to inform – it has a ‘creative’ tone: “It is like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.” (Baker 2008).
The second issue is the extent to which quantitative data supports Baker’s article. His concerns are far from unique – they date back to the early days of the internet (see Figure X). More recently they have been subjected to systematic research. This has been helped by the principles of the Wikimedia foundation, since much Wikipedia editing data is in the public domain. In response to the Activity I went back to a Wikipedia page I had edited some years ago, and realised how much of the editing data there was, even for one relatively obscure article about my secondary school in Leicester. A specific programme was created to process this data and has made it possible to analyse the source of edits. Unsurprisingly companies and political parties were found to be ‘polishing’ entries about themselves, more or less subtly (Borland, 2007). This is an important point in terms of understanding about my own experience as a practitioner. I certainly will be more specific in terms of encouraging scepticism about commercial and political entries.
The potential for tracking contributions to web sites has now led to the birth of a whole industry around ‘astroturfing’ (Sourcewatch, 2012), where fake personas are created on an industrial scale to influence public web forums (Monbiot, 2011). However, if anything Wikipedia is better equipped than most sites to detect and deal with this. For all of Baker’s reservations about over-zealous editing the internal culture and facilities of Wikipedia led to reasonably rapid restoration of the pro-corporate edits being reported (Borland 2007, BBC, 2007). Qualitative research by Huvila (2010) found that “The results indicate that there are several distinct groups of contributors using different information sources. The results also indicate a preference for sources available online. However, in spite of the popularity of online material a…