5 Things You Didn't Know About Wikipedia


Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales participates in a press conference in 2015. Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales participates in a press conference in 2015. Albin Lohr-Jones/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

As the sixth most-visited website in the world, Wikipedia is the source that countless people turn to for information. Surprisingly, the all-volunteer army of writers and editors who write this thing are still going strong 16 years in. But there are some holes in its coverage that might get bigger over time. Here are some surprising facts about Wikipedia.

1. It Originally Was Supposed to Be Written by Experts.

Wikipedia was an offshoot of a project called Nupedia, an internet encyclopedia developed by internet entrepreneur Jimmy Wales and philosopher Larry Sanger. Nupedia was supposed to be a free encyclopedia of articles written solely by experts. But the slow peer-review process meant that fewer than 24 articles were ready after a year, according to Sanger. He suggested creating a version that anyone could contribute to without this editorial oversight.

"My initial idea was that the wiki would be set up as part of Nupedia; it was to be a way for the public to develop a stream of content that could be fed into the Nupedia process," recalled Sanger in a memoir published on Slashdot. Launched on Jan. 15, 2001, Wikipedia took off like a house on fire. There were 6,000 articles written by July and 13,000 by October. In early 2017, there were 40 million articles in 293 languages.

2. Some People Think Jimmy Wales Writes All of Wikipedia.

In 2006, Jimmy Wales made an appearance on the NPR quiz show "Wait Wait ...Don't Tell Me!" He explained he often gets two kinds of emails. One type asks him to make corrections to various entries. "[People] assume I wrote the whole thing myself," he quipped. The other kind is from  folks thinking Wikipedia has something to do with Wicca -- "people [who are] upset about this pagan thing taking over the internet, " he added. Wales' appearance on the show was memorable for his not answering a single question right, though they were all based on Wikipedia entries.

3. Not Everything Is Covered on the Site.

It may seem hard to believe that there could be topics not covered (or only briefly covered) by Wikipedia, but several exist. One study showed just 15.6 percent of the biographies are about females. Tom Simonite at the MIT review pointed out in 2013 that Wikipedia's "entries on Pokémon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy." And why is that? "The loose collective running the site today, estimated to be 90 percent male, operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers who might increase participation in Wikipedia and broaden its coverage," he wrote. Plus, people are more likely to write for free about things they are passionate about. Hence, the Pokémon and porn stars pieces.

4. It's More Accurate Than You Might Think.

For years, college professors and newspaper editors have been telling their students and staff not to rely on Wikipedia for sources because of its open policy that anyone can edit or write. But how worried should they be? One 2014 study showed that the drug information on Wikipedia was 99.7 percent accurate compared to textbook information. However, article completeness was more in the 85 percent range. Another 2005 study looked at several articles on different topics and found Wikipedia was about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, whose content is all written by professionals. The study found 2.92 mistakes per article for Britannica and 3.86 for Wikipedia.

5. Mobile Is Hurting Wikipedia.

Not in terms of numbers of readers but in terms of getting writers and editors to work on it. Numerous reports say the number of Wikipedia editors has been declining for years. The workplace culture was the problem earlier. Now, it's the prevalence of mobile devices like smartphones. It's hard to write and edit complex text on a tiny screen. And the editing interface for Wikipedia's mobile version is very not user-friendly, reported the Guardian's Andrew Brown. Whether this decline in editors will make Wikipedia less reliable remains to be seen.



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