Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Wikimedia: An Internet Institution

Emma Perrin
E-mail: ep737712@ohio.edu
Twitter: @Emma_Perrin17

Wikipedia: the very name strikes fear into a researcher's heart. I was told from the time I completed my first research project back in late elementary school that it was unreliable. “Anyone can put anything on there!” they said. “You can’t trust it at all.”

Despite this, I came to love Wikipedia, and all of the information it provided right at my fingertips. I have found throughout years of research, both for school and for my own personal enlightenment, there have been few topics about which Wikipedia has not been able to provide at least some general and establishing facts. Furthermore, because of its vast web of information, connected conveniently through hyperlinks, I have made connections where I never would have otherwise. I often find myself lost in Wikipedia, jumping from page to page as each topic interests me a little more than the one before. It’s the perfect resource for someone like me, who loves to contextualize every bit of information I can.

So I guess it would be fair to say I’ve been a fan for a long time. Essentially, I have taken Wikipedia for granted, in part, I think, due to the fact that Wikipedia has remained so familiar and constant, both visually and elementally, in my memory. It’s always been there, a free and available source, welcoming me to learn, at least on an introductory level, about anything I could imagine. But I never before considered the scope of the Wikimedia Foundation in its entirety. I’ve heard of some of its project branches, such as Wikibooks and Wikiquotes, but I have never given them much thought, or considered at all how such an enormous enterprise could be run.
Image source: http://venturebreak.com/2015/03/10/wikimedia-foundation-sues-nsa-doj-mass-surveillance/
The main page of Wikimedia's website describes how the Wikimedia Foundation is a “nonprofit charitable organization,” which seems remarkable when I consider its position as a “top-ten internet property,” right up there with huge for-profit corporations like Google, Yahoo!, eBay, and Amazon, which seem to be innovating constantly to remain relevant in the world of the Internet (Info from comscore.com). So how does the organization stay afloat solely on what they describe as “generous support” from the public?
This article, from the MIT Technology Review, describes how the Wikimedia Foundation “threw out centuries of accepted methods for attaining” the information necessary to create a comprehensive encyclopedia. Instead of turning to previous compilation methods, in which experts and intelligentsia gathered the information they thought valid, the Wikimedia Foundation turned to the people. In doing so, they became a massive and influential example of user-generated content- massive in their scale of global reach (more than 35,000,000 articles in 290 languages, according to their own "About" page) and influential in their campaign to generate content and information for the people, by the people.  Hypothetically, anyone with access to the internet can contribute. There are articles written about everything from the most significant historical events and most famous individuals, to articles about my small hometown high school and local community theatre group.
The chart below illustrates the organizational structure of Wikipedia:
Image source: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/520446/the-decline-of-wikipedia/
It seems obvious to me, because of the user-generated aspect of Wikimedia projects, it should not be used as a basis for scholarly research or to confirm data or information for a news story. I don’t think it is reliable enough to be a trusted source of information for the public from a journalistic standpoint. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a huge need for Wikimedia and all of its projects. That is why it has been successful for as long as it has. If the Foundation can recognize where it stands, as a convenient, cost-free, and expansive catalogue of surface-level information, it can optimize its usefulness to society and success as an organization. 

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