The sultan and the glamour model

David Shariatmadari
24 May 2006

When Marcus J. Gilroy-Ware examined the rise of Wikipedia in September last year, the English version of this groundbreaking free encyclopaedia had about 730,000 articles. Evidently, a lot of can happen in a few short months. At the beginning of March, the number of English articles hit the 1 million mark and continues to rise. In contrast, the print version of Encyclopaedia Britannica manages a mere 65,000.

But is the Wikipedia phenomenon really so remarkable? We already have Google, a tool that's made the internet come good on its promise to bring the world's knowledge to our fingertips. What's the advantage of an open source project that reflects the whim and the weaknesses of its users?

The answer's simple. Wikipedia, specifically intended as a work of reference, explains things from first principles. Type "H5N1" into Google and (apart from its Wikipedia entry) you get a press release by the World Health Organisation, a report about a lawsuit, and news stories from around the world, all pitched to different audiences. Use Wikipedia, and you'll be able place the information immediately, to see exactly where it fits in to the scheme of things: "Influenza A virus subtype H5N1, also known as A(H5N1) or H5N1…". All the technical terms are linked to their own Wikipedia entries, so the knowledge is accessible to non-specialists without being dumbed down.

Also on Wikipedia in openDemocracy:

Marcus J Gilroy-Ware, "Why wiki?"
(30 September 2005)

As for claims that you can't trust a word it says, well, you'd certainly be foolish to trust it blindly. The same goes for Google. It's a question of using your nous: making your judgement based not merely on what it tells you, but on what you know from experience about the ways in which it might be misleading.

So, cards on the table: I'm a fan. But I do have one concern. With no editorial policy as such, is it possible that Wikipedia's millions of pages don't manage to cover quite as much ground all those zeros would have us believe? What if half of them are like the article on Millersburg, Indiana – population 868 - or Quail, Texas, which boasts just 33 residents? Then there's the piece on Jordanhill railway station, Scotland, which has the somewhat less than newsworthy distinction of being 1029th busiest in the UK (the trainspotters seem to have infiltrated Wikipedia quite thoroughly).

As it happens, a bunch of users have banded together to help make sure that Wikipedia reflects more than just the concerns of your average white, male, "technically inclined", developed world 20-40 year old. They are the brave members of Wikiproject: Countering Systemic Bias.

What they're doing isn't all that dramatic – they initiate and nuture articles on poorly represented topics and provide a forum for like minded members. But it's essential to Wikipedia's intellectual credibility. "I started this after using Wikipedia for a while and realising it was incredibly biased" says Xed, the project's founder. It seems that the predilection of its users for sci-fi and fantasy was being indulged at the expense of more serious topics: "I made the point at the time that there was more information on Middle Earth than Central Africa."

Other examples of yawning gaps aren't difficult to find. The entry on British glamour model Jordan is more than twice as long as the article on Selim, ruler of the Ottoman empire from 1512 to 1520 and conqueror of Palestine and Egypt.

Zyxoas, a Wikipedian from South Africa, cites another typical case:

"Sesotho is a language spoken by some four million people in two countries. When I found the article a couple of years ago it was a two paragraph stub. I thought 'Hey! That sucks!' and I dumped a whole bunch of linguistic info in there."

Sesotho isn't the only language to have been given short shrift. Compare the three line entry for Yi, the mother tongue of 6 million people in China, to the 260 line whopper for Scots, which has 1.5 million speakers in the UK. If you're about to counter that the Chinese version will certainly have a more detailed entry, you'd be right, but at around 30 lines it leaves a lot to be desired, especially when you consider that the equally long entry for Klingon, which is nobody's mother tongue, has an entry of over 200 lines.

Do these kind of imbalances really matter? After all, Wikipedia is a creature of the demographic that views and contributes to it: it mirrors their interests exactly. So if we have very little information on Yi, that's because there's no demand for it.

Which sounds uncannily like free market economics applied to knowledge. But just as very few are in favour of genuinely laissez faire capitalism, a lot of people are turned off by the results of a total lack of management when it comes to information. If, as the encyclopaedia's founder Jimmy Wales says, we're doing this – at least in part – "for the child in Africa who is going to use … reference works produced by our community and find a solution to the crushing poverty that surrounds him", then Wikipedia can't just be a free-for-all. A little nudging might well be needed to keep things on the right track. The nudging needn't come from on high – in fact, nothing could be more collective, more grassroots than Countering Systemic Bias.

It's difficult to fault the concept. Let the techies from Texas have the articles about their home towns and favourite characters from Stargate Atlantis, but let's make sure we have stuff on Egyptian political parties and Brazilian writers too. Only that way will Wikipedia achieve its full potential, and as an added bonus its detractors won't be able to complain that it's got more on C-list celebs than it has on sultans.

There's evidently a lot of work to be done and despite the support he's received from ordinary users, Xed strikes a pessimistic tone:

"There is a lot of utopian feeling around about the internet, especially about projects like Wikipedia. There's a belief that it will bring the world closer together and herald a new era of people power. I don't see any evidence for that. The same patterns seen in the mass media are replicating themselves on the internet."

It would be a shame if that were true. So, if you're reading this, and you're an authority on some underrepresented area of human experience, you know what to do: get your ideas together, get registered, and contribute.

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