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The genius of Wikipedia

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Internet can often be disorienting and confusing — Google searches routinely yield meaningless results, and proper information can often be nearly impossible to find. We have all felt the resulting frustration. This was especially the case before the advent of Wikipedia — now the ultimate online encyclopedia and one of the ten most trafficked websites in the world. In its infancy, Wikipedia was often maligned as suspicious and untrustworthy. However, it is increasingly hard to deny its supremacy as a knowledge source.

Wikipedia is ubiquitous, used for both general and detailed information on any subject. In just a few minutes, one can prepare for a chemistry lab, find the populations of thousands of cities and towns across the world, learn the basics of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and get some important details on the early life of Lady Gaga or Bill Gates. Why has Wikipedia risen to such hegemony as an information source in the modern world? The answer is that it has succeeded where most of the rest of the Internet has failed. Wikipedia has organized knowledge in an easy, user-friendly way, rather than dispersing it in a chaotic mess.

We are in the midst of an explosion of information. The Economist presented a special report last year on this very topic, which quoted both a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist worrying about the increasing inaccessibility of information given the explosion of data, and a computer scientist from Berkeley claiming that we are in the middle of “the industrial revolution of data.” Indeed, a major worry in this new information age is how to handle the vast amounts of data that are accessible. Are we doomed, or is it possible to organize and exploit this new glut of information? Wikipedia has offered a resounding yes to this question. It has utilized the interconnectedness of the Internet and the intelligence of a vast number of specialized people to become the ultimate knowledge source. Its principles offer a look at how we can use the data explosion for the good of society rather than getting hopelessly lost.

Wikipedia’s creative use of both top-down structure and grassroots creativity make it a fascinating study in effectiveness. Its organization of the increasingly vast amount of data in the world is remarkable. As a contrast, let us consider “Facebook Questions.” If you’ve casually taken a look at the responses to any such questions (which range from “Will Miami win the NBA title?” to “Will photon entanglement drastically change the world in the next 10 years?”), you’ll see that most answers are usually about seven paragraphs (six meaningless) written by a grad student at Cal Tech or Stanford, and a couple are one-liners trying to be funny. At this very moment, I’m reading the responses to the question “Is global warming a real threat to humanity?” Students from Oxford, University of Michigan, UC Irvine and Berkeley all weighed in extensively, most in multiple paragraphs. How is one to possibly extract any reliable information (much less efficiently) from such a setup?

Wikipedia is the exact opposite –— it has a basic structure that avoids the “death by lists” of either Google or Facebook Questions. It is neatly divided into sections, and most importantly, people can edit the work of others. So instead of thousands of people adding another bullet point or long answer, experts can selectively edit the work of others, maintaining brevity. Others can further refine the work. Falsehoods are quickly deleted. This way, compactness is maintained and accuracy is increasingly likely. A reader does not read the endless essays written on Facebook Questions or have to navigate through a mostly meaningless Google search result page. You go to the appropriate Wikipedia section and get an answer.

Another aspect of Wikipedia that separates it from all other information sources is its interconnectedness. One can move through Wikipedia in an almost stream of consciousness manner. Something is unclear? Click on its link, which brings you to another Wikipedia page, which you can quickly refer to and go back. Want to verify accuracy? Click on the citation, which brings you to the source listed at the bottom of the page. Imagine trying to do this in Google. Each time you don’t understand something or need verification, go back to the search home page, search your phrase, try to find the best page to get the answer, and then hit the back button about five times. Wikipedia uses structure, brevity and interconnectedness to succeed where many others have failed in managing the information revolution.

The explosion of data that now confronts us could be incredibly beneficial to society if it is properly controlled and utilized. Giant masses of information can be of enormous help in science and medicine — tracking the outcomes of many patients over time can lead to more effective medical practice. Sequencing the genomes of thousands of cancer patients can hopefully show us with more accuracy the tiny little genetic changes that are driving the disease. Not only science and medicine stand to gain — data can shed light on human behaviors, find new connections between things that no one has ever seen and help businesses cater more effectively to their customers. The potential is enormous — if it can somehow be managed.

With this incredible increase in data comes a newfound necessity to keep it in check. Otherwise, we can get lost in the trees very quickly. As public policymakers and businesses grapple with ways to better manage data, they should keep the principles of Wikipedia in mind. It is a beautiful portrayal of the power of the collective brainpower of many people when unleashed in setting that has defined boundaries. Simply create the basic borders, and then get out as fast as possible. It’s a perfect fusion of top-down and bottom-up, central planning and lassiez faire. If only all segments of society could compromise so well.

When you inevitably go to Wikipedia this week for whatever purpose, you’ll see a banner at the top asking for a donation. I would suggest strongly considering. It’s the least we can do to recompense a website that could be the most important of our time.


Edward A. Larkin is a senior with a double major in Biological Sciences and Classical Civilization. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.