Wikipedia celebrates its 18th birthday this week. If the massive crowdsourced encyclopedia project were human, it would just now be considered a legal adult in most countries.
But in truth, the free online encyclopedia has long played the role of the internet’s good “grown-up.”
Wikipedia has grown enormously since its inception: It now boasts 5.7 million articles in English and pulled in 92 billion page views last year.
The site has also undergone a major reputation change. If you ask Siri, Alexa or Google Home a general-knowledge question, it is likely to pull the response from Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia has been cited in more than 400 judicial opinions, according to a 2010 paper in the Yale Journal of Law & Technology.
Many professors are ditching the traditional writing assignment and instead asking students to expand or create a Wikipedia article on the topic. And YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki announced a plan last March to pair misleading conspiracy videos with links to corresponding articles from Wikipedia.
Facebook has also released a feature using Wikipedia’s content to provide users more information about the publication source for articles in their feed.
Wikipedia’s rise is driven by a crucial difference in values that separates it from its peers among the top 10 websites: On Wikipedia, truth trumps self-expression.
Last year, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told NPR that Wikipedia has largely avoided the “fake news” problem, raising the question of what the encyclopedia does differently than other popular websites. As Brian Feldman suggested in New York magazine, perhaps it’s simply the willingness within the Wikipedia community to delete.
If a user posts bad information on Wikipedia, other users are authorized and empowered to remove that unencyclopedic content. It’s a striking contrast to Twitter, which allows lies and inflammatory statements to remain on its platform for years.
The Wikipedia community has also embraced automated technologies to protect the integrity of the encyclopedia. While YouTube scans videos for potential content violations using its Content ID database, the community of Wikipedia editors has created editing bots that go further by making determinations about content quality.
For example, ClueBot NG quickly reverts probable vandalism based on its machine-learning algorithm and a database of common indicators such as expletives and poor punctuation. In 2016, YouTube courted controversy for attempting to enforce its policy against inappropriate language, with many vloggers alleging censorship. But a civility requirement makes sense for Wikipedians because the community shares a vision: to build a better encyclopedia.
Every generation’s encyclopedists face adversaries — in the 18th century, Denis Diderot and other authors of the Encyclopédie were denounced as heretics — and today’s Wikipedians confront serious challenges: an often-hostile editing environment with regular editors who “bite” the newbies, a long-term decline in the contributor community, bad actors who hack administrator accounts to vandalize pages and an overall systemic bias in its coverage, caused in part by a contributor base that’s mostly Western and male.
Gender bias on Wikipedia received media attention last year when Donna Strickland won a Nobel Prize, and — at the time of her award — did not have a Wikipedia page. (An earlier entry on Strickland had been rejected because of lack of “notability.”) Katherine Maher, executive director of the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, responded with a commentary observing that the encyclopedia mirrors, but does not cause, the world’s biases.
It’s worth emphasizing, however, how the volunteer Wikipedia community is gradually moving the needle. The volunteer group WikiProject Women in Red, co-founded by Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight and Roger Bamkin in 2015, has committed to reducing the site’s gender gap and has already increased the share of female biographies from about 15 to 17.8 percent. Do-it-yourself initiatives such as AfroCROWD and Art+Feminism host edit-a-thons, organized public events where volunteers help improve the encyclopedia’s coverage of underrepresented groups.
Meanwhile, YouTube stars are making millions on video games and Instagram influencers are posting fake sponsored content to attract sponsors. Outside the Wiki bubble, the internet glares with adolescent self-promotion.
Contrast those commercial stars with Jim Henderson, 70, who has spent the past 12 years biking the boroughs of New York and snapping photographs for Wikipedia. As reported by the Queens Daily Eagle, Henderson has uploaded thousands of original photos, which have greatly helped community news coverage. Henderson devotes his time on a volunteer basis, for the public benefit, and without expecting compensation or social media likes.
Millennials coined the word “adulting” to describe mundane acts of grown-up self-sufficiency. But perhaps the term could be expanded to include moral maturity and repeated contributions toward the common good.
As Wikipedia crosses its milestone this week, it’s worth acknowledging that — at its best — its community has long been adulting, the contributors modeling a selflessness that’s increasingly rare online.
Stephen Harrison is working on a book about the Wikipedia editing community. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.