Wired‘s Cade Metz notes Wikipedia’s evolution in recent years, for good and for ill.
Today, Wikipedia celebrates its fifteenth birthday. In Internet years, that’s pretty old. But “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit” is different from services like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Though Wikipedia has long been one of the Internet’s most popular sites—a force that decimated institutions like the Encyclopedia Britannica—it’s only just reaching maturity.
The site’s defining moment, it turns out, came about a decade ago, when Stephen Colbert coined the term “Wikiality.” In a 2006 episode The Colbert Report, the comedian spotlighted Wikipedia’s most obvious weakness: With a crowdsourced encyclopedia, we run the risk of a small group of people—or even a single person—bending reality to suit their particular opinions or attitudes or motivations.
“Any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true,” Colbert said, before ironically praising Wikipedia in a way that exposed one of its biggest flaws. “Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington had slaves? If I want to say he didn’t, that’s my right. And now, thanks to Wikipedia, it’s also a fact. We should apply these principles to all information. All we need to do is convince a majority of people that some factoid is true.”
Fifteen years on, Wikipedia is approaching an equilibrium.
To prove his point, Colbert invited viewers to add incorrect information to Wikipedia’s article on elephants. And they did. In the end, this wonderfully clever piece of participatory social commentary sparked a response from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s co-founder and figurehead-in-chief. At the 2006 Wikimania—an annual gathering of Wikipedia’s core editors and administrators—Wales signaled a shift in the site’s priorities, saying the community would put a greater emphasis on the quality of its articles, as opposed to the quantity. “We’re going from the era of growth to the era of quality,” Wales told the The New York Times.
And that’s just what happened. The site’s administrators redoubled efforts to stop site vandalism, to prevent the kind of “truthiness” Colbert had satirized. In many ways, it worked. “There was a major switch,” says Aaron Halfaker, a researcher with the Wikimedia Foundation, the not-profit that oversees Wikipedia. Volunteers policed pages with a greater vigor and, generally speaking, became more wary of anyone who wasn’t already a part of the community. The article on elephants is still “protected” from unknown editors.