A wiki (Hawaiian for ‘quick’) is a website or database developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing anyone to add or edit the content. Wikipedia — the largest example of a wiki — is accessed by half a billion people each month, yet only around 136,000 actually contribute to the content. In this week’s Thing, we’ll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia, explain how you can get involved, and also investigate creating your very own wiki.
How reliable is Wikipedia?
Like any information source, Wikipedia has its strengths and weaknesses. The fact that it’s edited by a large community means that the coverage is broad and errors are often quickly corrected. However, this community is not necessarily representative of the audience. Research has shown that around 90% of editors are male and most are under 30. So, the site certainly isn’t free from bias, but it is much more transparent than other sources. The revision history for each page is publicly available, showing what has been changed and by whom:
Editors need to either log in, or their IP address is recorded. There’s also a Talk page where editors can discuss the changes they’ve made. Here’s an example from the entry for the prolific nineteenth-century Scottish author, Margaret Oliphant:
When discussions get heated, or there’s a round of quick-fire editing, Wikipedia staff lock down the page so that any changes must be approved. Wikipedia’s own editors also patrol pages to check for quality, often adding flags such as “citation needed” to encourage contributors to provide published evidence.
The best way of making Wikipedia more reliable and representative is for other people to get involved. While the idea of editing (or creating) a Wikipedia page might be intimidating, there’s lots of support and training available.
The Wikipedia Adventure Game is an entertaining tutorial that guides you through the main features and helps you experiment in a ‘sandbox’ – a dummy version of the live website. This tutorial takes around an hour (unfortunately, it doesn’t work on tablets or smartphones).
For a more traditional approach, take a look at the 4-part Training for Students module. This provides detailed instructions on the markup syntax required for Wikipedia content. It’s quite different from other markup languages, such as HTML, so can take a little while to grasp.
Creating your own Wiki
Wikipedia is based on Mediawiki, free open-source software. It’s also responsible for Wikitionary and Wikimedia Commons. Anyone can download the software and create their own wiki. Typically, people use it for knowledge management projects or collaborative ventures. You could create a wiki on a specific period of art history, or document all the protagonists and themes in a political movement. Of course, you might simply add this content directly to Wikipedia, but with your own wiki you can control the access and make it very niche.
MediaWiki is relatively straightforward to set up. If you’ve successfully installed Omeka or WordPress, you’ll find it easy. Some web hosts offer a one-click installation option. The most difficult part is becoming proficient in the markup language.
MediaWiki offers a great opportunity for sharing knowledge, either through Wikipedia or by creating your own wiki. Even improving just one article can help other people. And understanding this type of software allows us to imagine new possibilities for sharing our research.
This week’s suggested activities are:
- Play the Wikipedia Adventure Game, then try editing a live page
- Organise an Edit-a-thon, an event where people get together to address a specific gap on Wikipedia
- Download MediaWiki and create your own specialist wiki