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Random Access Memories: Wikipedia

Wiki don't lose that number

Oh yes, Wiki – the Hitchhiker’s Guide only without wit, charm, personality or froodiness.

Yeah, but Wikipedia got something very right with its basic approach mixing dry design with an emphasis on pure content. It rapidly blazed past h2g2.com, Douglas Adams’ own online take on his famous book, and has succeeded where a string of conventional online encyclopaedias failed.

By the end of year one, Wikipedia had 19,000 articles and said it wanted to “make over 100,000” — a goal that now seems quaint given that the site has more than six million entries in English alone. And as the site turned 20 last week, we’d like to hold up our magnifying glass and ask some questions.

But I searched for something just now and it’s not there! Citation required! What gives?

Six million is a big number — and even an online encyclopaedia can’t be totally exhaustive. But Wikipedia also regularly hits controversy by stymying growth on the basis that its editors might not think a subject is noteworthy. Spend hours creating an entry on your favourite band and said editors might deem it unsuitable and consign it to the ether. English Wikipedia has roughly 5000 very active editors — and the editor count has been falling for years, so those who remain hold an immense amount of collective power.

Hang on, you’re just writing this up from the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia, aren’t you?

Wikiception! But yes, in researching Wikipedia for this page, Wikipedia’s article on Wikipedia was consulted, which showcases a problem: Wikipedia is today considered a guaranteed source of truth, with people slavishly copying content and forgetting that the site is a community web project built by enthusiastic amateurs. That’s not to say it isn’t a useful resource, but this should serve as a reminder to do your research more broadly — be that online or even using old-school paper books… or perhaps even a magazine.