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In a post-truth world, we need Wikipedia more than ever

Commentary: Wikipedia celebrated its 20th anniversary today. The free encyclopedia may not be exciting, but its neutral, volunteer-driven content is incredibly valuable.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read
Wikimedia Foundation

It's one of the simplest sites on the internet: black text on a white background, a few bandwidth-hogging graphics and a handful of small photos, if any at all. But that minimalism didn't stop it from winning around 120 billion page views last year.

The site is Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that celebrates its 20th anniversary today. Its users don't flock to Wikipedia to watch viral videos, post photos of their kids or argue in the comments. Instead they come seeking dry and dispassionately-presented information on a staggering array of topics in 300 languages (even Esperanto). It's far from scintillating, but Wikipedia is incredibly valuable in a divisive "post-truth" world where misinformation is rampant and where a lie that President Donald Trump won reelection led to a violent riot at the US Capitol that killed five people. 

Supported by donations and managed by a worldwide community of editor volunteers, Wikipedia represents a calm, rational corner of the internet and a model for how global collaboration on a sprawling project can work. And even with its occasional factual stumbles, we need it now more than ever. 

Just the facts, ma'am

You can call me a Wikipedia superfan. It's a nerdy badge I wear proudly, even if I realized only a few days ago that we share the same birthday. I don't remember when I first discovered the site, though I imagine it was on a grinding dial-up internet connection well-suited to the basic design. But since reading my first article, I dive in at least once a day and the app has become one of the most-used on my phone. And I have a lot to get through -- the English site has more than 6.2 million articles (which amount to 2,821 printed volumes), with more than 597 new articles posting each day. Add in the other languages and the site reaches 55 million articles.

Wikimedia Foundation

I'm a fan because Wikipedia is one of the internet's saving graces, lifting the online world out of the hellish hole that it often slithers down. Instead of hate speech and click bait headlines, there's just instant access to clean information that fills my knowledge gaps. If I'm reading a book and come across an unfamiliar concept, place, person or thing, I'll usually put the book down and jump to Wikipedia to learn more before reading on (except when reading on an Amazon Kindle, which does the work for you).

Maybe having all of that information available so quickly has made me impatient -- it's weird to think that I used to go to a library to look up something -- but it's also satisfying. I even sometimes go on the site just to browse through one of my favorite topics. It's a perfect online antidote to the dispiriting experience of Twitter doomscrolling and I come away with something I can reference later. Do you want to know the difference between an aerial tramway and a gondola lift (and why wouldn't you)? Well, Wikipedia can tell you. It's there for the taking, all in the "neutral point of view" writing style that the site requires (yes, there's even an article for that).

Toby Negrin, the chief product officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts Wikipedia, says the more people contribute to Wikipedia, the more neutral they become. "Free knowledge is at the core of what we do. Volunteer Wikipedians have built policies and processes to ensure that edits are rooted in verifiable facts, and that the act of reading a Wikipedia article invites critical thinking about the information you read." 

Beyond Amazon, other tech companies rely on Wikipedia's thoroughness. YouTube sources it on conspiracy theory-laden videos, Siri uses it to answer your questions, Google puts the site's articles in the box at the top of many search results and Facebook relies on it to give the background on a publication when you post a new story to your wall (look for the small "i" in the circle). So, really, it's not just me. Sometimes people try to game the system and rewrite facts, but anything that violates the site's detailed standards tends to rile up the Wikipedia editors pretty quickly. 

Scrutiny and standards

Wikipedia's reputation comes not just from its information, but also the worldwide community of editors (all volunteers who need to register for an account) who write and edit articles and administrators who watch over it all. It's a lot of people -- more than 280,000 editors a month -- and they keep busy. Edits are made at a rate of 1.9 edits per second with the English site getting 6 million edits last month. 

They're also fast. As I was writing this Wednesday while the House of Representatives was in the process of voting to impeach Trump for the second time, the related Wikipedia page was changing as events unfolded. By 5 p.m. PT, about four hours after the vote, it was more than 5,600 words long with 146 citations and growing. But the speed isn't just for current events. A favorite example of mine is when an airline announces a new route (I told you I was a nerd). I guarantee that if you go to the airline's article minutes later, the update will be there.

Of course, a site that anyone can edit isn't without problems. There's a massive gender gap among its editors, for one. Errors, editing wars, vandalism on the site and other controversies also are well-documented, even by Wikipedia itself in its typically thorough form. Still, the majority of Wikipedia's pages are well-cited with third-party sources and links to other Wikipedia articles (it's easy to disappear down a rabbit hole) and researchers have commended the site's reliability. When vandalism does occur, Wikimedia says it's addressed within five minutes and you can view a page's edit history

The site has set stricter editor standards for hot-button topics, like banning changes from brand new accounts, and it created a disinformation task force for the 2020 election. Pages are regularly flagged with calls for better editing, more documentation and the removal of biased language and pages with too little information, inbound links or traffic can be deleted. That was the case for the brief Wikipedia article dedicated to me (I swear I didn't write it) back when I was reviewing phones for CNET. One day it was there, and then *poof* it was gone.

Today, I don't blame the editor who nuked my miniscule corner of one of my favorite sites. I know they were just doing their job of making the site better. Even as a fan, I'd agree Wikipedia shouldn't be used as a primary resource for students, academics, or journalists. But it is valuable as a springboard to an original book, paper or report that has faced greater scrutiny. In other words, get your factual starter appetizer here, then go somewhere for your main course. 

Wikipedia may be boring, but it's some of the sanest internet we have. Happy anniversary, Wikipedia. Here's to many more.