What is a Wiki?

Wikipedia logo on a laptop screen.

The word “wiki” comes from Hawaiian and can be a verb meaning “to hasten” or an adjective meaning “quick” or “quick”. But how does this relate to Wikipedia?

The origin of the name “Wiki”

The first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, was created by a man named Ward Cunningham to facilitate the exchange of ideas, information, and experiences among programmers. The name, WikiWikiWeb, was inspired by a shuttle service at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu. Since then, the idea has grown explosively and become one of the defining aspects of the Internet.

To note: Much of the discussion and examples here will revolve around Wikipedia and other sites maintained by the Wikimedia Foundation, as these are by far the largest wikis in existence. Not all wikis work exactly the same, although most are similar.

What is a Wiki?

The internet is full of informative websites of widely variable quality. Some are filled with carefully curated content written and edited by people with specialized training or experience. Most sources considered authoritative are run this way, and for good reason – selecting your content for accuracy goes a long way to boosting credibility.

Wikis work the exact opposite. The content found on wikis is written and edited almost exclusively by anonymous volunteers. If you spot an inaccuracy or a problem with an article, you can make the necessary corrections. If an article does not exist at all, you can add it. If someone has a problem with your uploads, they can dispute or remove it. You can even host your own wiki if you wish, either using software available from the Wikimedia Foundation or your own in-house solution. The goal of wikis is always to be as open as possible.

The full history of an article (when it was created, what changes were made and when, and any discussion or debate about the content) is publicly visible. Here is an example of what you might see if you looked at the edit history of a page on Wikipedia.

Revision history on the wikipedia article on heavy water.

Specialized wikis

Most wikis don’t try to be as broad in scope as Wikipedia. There are specialized wikis for almost every topic you can imagine. Fandom.com (formerly Wikia) alone hosts thousands of Wikis relating to movies, TV, books, video games, and more.

For example, the Star Wars wiki – which is called “Wookieepedia”, a portmanteau of “Wookiee” and “Encyclopedia” – has just under 175,000 articles.

The top of the Star Wars fandom wiki.

Wikipedia maintains a non-exhaustive list of other wikis that you can find on the Internet, which you can consult.

Using an open collaboration model has allowed wikis to cover a wide range of topics and grow at an amazing rate with little or no centralized oversight. New information can be incorporated into existing articles in seconds. But what does the lack of centralized control mean for accuracy?

Should you trust a wiki?

There has been extensive debate about the accuracy and reliability of crowdsourced resources such as Wikipedia. Critics are quick to point out that “anyone can edit it and say whatever they want”, which is largely true. Sometimes false information is added and presented as fact, either deliberately as an act of vandalism or unintentionally due to honest ignorance. Other times, biased or incomplete information is added without sufficient context.

Wikis rely on the “wisdom of the crowd” to solve these problems. There is an assumption inherent in the wiki model that people will try to speak the truth as best they know it, and that when you have a large enough group of people contributing, things like individual biases will be undone and major factual errors will be eliminated. Wikipedia and related sites explicitly ask people to try to maintain a neutral point of view and only make verifiable claims. But does this approach work?

Turns out that’s mostly the case. Wikipedia gets a decent score when measured purely on the basis of empirical facts. A study found that Wikipedia was accurate 80% of the time, while conventional encyclopedias were accurate about 96% of the time. Wikipedia does better with highly technical or specialized articles, where Wikipedia was found to be comparable to Britannica in a Nature study, and a separate study found that experts rated Wikipedia articles related to their subject matter more highly than laypersons. In the same study, only 5.7% of experts found factual errors in the articles they reviewed.

Wikipedia is generally factually correct, but what about bias? A study by researchers at Harvard Business School found that the more an article was reviewed, the more likely words indicating bias were to disappear compared to curated work by experts. In other words, Wikipedia articles tend to become less biased as more people work on them.

So make the world a less biased place — edit a Wikipedia article.


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