Wikipedia and WikiNews are two of the most prominent examples of successful and widely used collaborative web editing tools. Both, among others, highlight some of the key transformation elements of the new emerging web.
With the development and advance of recent technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasting and file sharing this model is challenged and community-driven services are gaining influence rapidly. These new paradigms obliterate the clear distinction between information providers and consumers. The lines between producers and consumers are blurred even more by services such as Wikipedia, where every reader can become an author, instantly.
This paper presents an overview of a broad selection of current technologies and services: blogs, wikis including Wikipedia and Wikinews, social networks such as Friendster and Orkut as well as related social services like del.icio.us, file sharing tools such as Flickr, and podcasting. These services enable user participation on the Web and manage to recruit a large number of users as authors of new content.
In the first , second and third part of this analysis we have given a general introduction to the new ways in which users can interact though the Web while providing an introduction to blogs, wikis and their use.
In this fourth part we are now going to focus our attention on Wikipedia and WikiNews .
The tradition of trading knowledge in the form of professionally authored encyclopedias goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries.
This is in stark contrast to Wikipedia, where articles are neither written by acknowledged experts nor are they reviewed by editors.
Wikipedia could be coined "the people's encyclopedia". It is a free, wiki-based encyclopedia that anyone can edit.
Every user is reader, author, and editor at the same time. The success of Wikipedia builds on the tight involvement of the users, the sense of the community, and a dedication to developing a knowledge repository of unprecedented breadth and depth.
The project is growing rapidly: from its founding in 2001 until December 2005, Wikipedia has been established in more than 200 languages with more than 2.5 million articles. The largest editions are the English one with about 980,000 articles and the German one with almost 330,000 articles.
Advantages of Wikipedia
The concept and architecture of Wikipedia make it much more flexible than a print version or an edited online version of an encyclopedia. When events like the Olympic games, for example, take place the most current results are published just minutes after they become available.
These articles are sometimes even complemented with tables, photos and links to external resources.
The main argument against the Wikipedia project is that with an open editing process the correctness of the information provided cannot be guaranteed.
However, a recent study conducted by Nature shows that, in terms of accuracy, science articles in Wikipedia are fully comparable with corresponding information in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Both encyclopedias contain a number of misinterpretations of concepts, omissions, misleading statements, and factual errors. Wikipedia is probably doing comparatively well because it endorses guidelines to ensure that articles are written in an objective and unbiased way.
One of the main policies for writers is the "neutral point of view". It urges authors to write content from a neutral perspective so that "ideas and facts [are presented] in such a fashion that both supporters and opponents can agree".
Drawbacks of the Approach
Despite all guidelines, the concept of Wikipedia is prone to a number of complications. This section presents selected problems that can be observed frequently. They are most likely not only to be encountered in Wikipedia but in any wiki with many articles and users.
Quality and Authority
Encyclopedias and dictionaries are typically reference works. They are used by researchers, librarians, students, journalists, etc. in order to obtain precise definitions and explanations.
Since articles in Wikipedia are written by a large number of users, and currently mechanisms to approve the expertise of authors or to verify the reliability of content do not exist, the quality in Wikipedia is not equal for all articles. Therefore it can be precarious to use Wikipedia as a sole source of reference.
An editor of the New York Times has even warned the journalists of the newspaper to use Wikipedia with caution. The Wikipedia initiative is aware of the problem of a lack of quality, but instead of having articles approved by experts, a peer review and rating mechanism is favoured.
The "article validation feature" [due in January 2006] will allow users of the encyclopedia to assess the quality of articles. Since the mean value of all ratings for a given document version indicates its quality, it will be easier for readers to judge whether to trust the information provided by Wikipedia or not.
Background and Balance
Wikipedia has several policies in place to ensure, for instance, that articles are unbiased. However, even if an article is written in compliance with the "neutral point of view" the varying cultural, social, national and lingual backgrounds can have an enormous influence.
Hence, content in Wikipedia can only be as professional and balanced as its authors and their demography are. On February 5th, 2005, the English article on the American chess player Paul Morphy, for example, had 5,466 words, contained a photo, citations and references to external resources. In contrast to this, the German version consisted of only 290 words and did not offer any additional information.
This example shows, on the one hand, that Paul Morphy is an important person for Americans. On the other hand, it distorts reality and creates an imbalance in that it emphasises "local heroes". Edited encyclopedias meet imbalance and bias by introducing guidelines for the creation of content. The length of articles or the number of references to external sources, for instance, might be limited. These measures make it possible to create articles in a given "class" with the same structure and similar volume.
In Wikipedia, disproportionate weight is given to topics such as controversial scientific matters, disputed hypotheses, science fiction, and conspiracy theories. It is beyond the scope of this paper, but it should be investigated how popular these topics actually are, and what kind of users are involved in their writing.
Sensitive Information and Privacy
Incorrect information in Wikipedia articles is particularly problematic when sensitive information is covered.
A recent, startling example is the case of John Seigenthaler. An anonymous user published a biography for Seigenthaler on Wikipedia. It related him to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and his brother and accused Seigenthaler of collaboration with the Soviet Union in the 1970s. An intense discussion followed and as a consequence of the Seigenthaler case, the creation of new articles is restricted to registered users only, i.e., anonymous users are not able to start new articles.
Becoming a registered user is, however, not complicated, being only a matter of several minutes.
Although defamatory content can cause much harm, sometimes incomplete articles and articles with deliberate omissions are just as bad. If an article states that an author has written books A and B but does not mention that the same author has written another five books it leaves the impression that only two books were written.
In some cases, however, correct but controversial information is published, and the person concerned wishes to have it corrected or removed. Daniel Brandt, privacy activist and critical of Wikipedia, wanted to have the Wikipedia article on him removed. After a lengthy, sometimes provocative discussion, Daniel Brandt was blocked from using Wikipedia, and his article was not removed.
Malicious modifications of articles, including the deletion of information, appending incorrect or inappropriate content, insertion of vulgarities and the insertion of advertisements, happens occasionally in Wikipedia.
Research shows that these acts of vandalism are often repaired within only a few minutes after they occur. Spiteful deletions, in particular, are reverted very fast.
Another example of something that is common to wikis in general are "edit wars": a number of paragraphs of articles are repeatedly inserted and deleted or modified and reverted by two users or groups of users. Most likely this is a social problem, where two parties are unable to reach a consensus over a piece of content. Usually such a dispute is ended by a democratic vote that is attached to the article.
Awareness of the Concept
Although in theory everybody can edit articles, only a small percentage of users actually do - even though they probably know that the content is incorrect or incomplete. Some users might not even be aware that Wikipedia is not an edited work and that basically every reader can edit the content provided. This is true especially for users that are relatively new to the Internet and are directed to Wikipedia by search engines such as Google.
If users are not acquainted with the underlying concepts of Wikipedia they do not know that the content may not be authoritative. However, even if users do not rely solely on the information provided by Wikipedia and do consult other resources, the content provided might be identical because several services including Answers.com retrieve information from Wikipedia. Thus we could have the situation where misinformation originating from Wikipedia is used as a basis for a new piece of work, utilised by Wikipedia authors to argue for the incorrect information in the encyclopedia.
Volume of Wikipedia
The number of articles is not necessarily a yardstick for the completeness of the encyclopedia. Wikipedia with approximately 900,000 articles has far more articles than the Encyclopædia Britannica with about 120,000 articles, but it also contains many articles about movies, rock groups, etc. These kinds of articles are not usually part of a general encyclopedia but of more specific works.
Although it can be seen as an advantage that detailed articles on a very wide range of topics are present in a single encyclopedia, it is sometimes cumbersome. In a general encyclopedia an article on The Beatles, for instance, is not expected to exceed more than a few paragraphs in length. In Wikipedia, however, the corresponding article is several printed pages long and includes a complete discography, a history and a set of photos of the band, etc. Thus, the Wikipedia article might be better suited for a specialised encyclopedia on pop music.
These differences make it hard to compare Wikipedia to a traditional encyclopedia.
On the one hand, the topics covered by Wikipedia vary greatly, and it might have to be compared to a set of specialised encyclopedias. On the other hand, articles in Wikipedia are sometimes much longer and more detailed than corresponding information in a conventional encyclopedia or dictionary. We believe that Wikipedia is likely to become a new type of encyclopedia incommensurable to existing ones.
Most community-based news services on the Web reverse the order of the traditional publishing process.
In conventional publishing, a board of editors selects a set of stories from the vast amount of information produced every day. The number of stories is usually determined by the volume of the newspaper, by the time available for a TV or radio programme, etc.
By contrast, community-based news providers make every piece of news accessible, and filtering techniques such as filter-style blogs are employed to present only relevant articles to the consumers.
Goals of Wikinews
In November 2004, Wikinews, a community-based, participatory news project linked to Wikipedia, was started.
Neither does Wikinews offer only news headlines with short abstracts like Slashdot does, nor is it restricted to a specific topic or does it present an opinion in its articles as services such as Indymedia does.
Instead, Wikinews articles are written conforming to Wikipedia's "neutral point of view" guideline. As a news service where everyone can contribute information, it has to potential to have an impact on the information made available to consumers.
Content that might not be relevant enough to be presented by large news providers or information deliberately suppressed by mainstream media can still be made available on Wikinews.
Especially in countries where freedom of speech and freedom of press are restricted Wikinews can become an important service.
The Relationship between Wikinews and Wikipedia
Both Wikinews and Wikipedia build on the same concept and infrastructure, and both share the same benefits and disadvantages. Wikinews however takes a different approach to the publication of information. While Wikipedia articles are usually open for editing any time, stories in Wikinews are set "read-only" after editing has been completed and their content has been approved by the community.
After editing has finished, a permanent and stable version of the articles is archived in the system. This means that the convergence criteria applied in Wikipedia is not valid for Wikinews.
Wikipedia articles are typically long-lived, therefore the probability to achieve completeness and accuracy is higher because the more time available, the more readers will access an article, and the more likely it is that errors will be corrected.
Such an approach cannot be taken for news sites since news need to be published quickly - otherwise it will be obsolete. Therefore information edited on Wikinews has to reach maturity rapidly, which is not always successful and sometimes results in rather short articles.
Success of Wikinews
Up to the 19th of January, 2006, 4,065 articles were published on the English edition of Wikinews, i.e., on average about nine or ten articles were produced per day. This makes Wikinews not nearly as successful as Wikipedia. One of the reasons might be the directive to write articles from a neutral perspective, without bias and opinion.
In our opinion, this makes Wikinews monotonous to read. Also articles are often collections of news and different views on a given topic gathered from various mainstream news providers.
One reason for the limited success of Wikinews might be the fact that there is no way of commenting on news articles within the Wikinews system.
Although it is possible to attach discussions to Wikinews articles ("talk pages") these postings are strictly confined to discussing details on authoring. Once a Wikinews article is completed, however, users cannot debate its content or add complementary information.
In contrast to this, the popularity of blogs and Slashdot-like news services is based on the comments added by readers.
In these systems, views on a news article shared by readers are sometimes more enlightening and more important than the actual news item because they can offer a different perspective on the story, details on the topic, related information, etc.
This type of commentary is not permitted in Wikinews.
As one of the administrators of the system explains, "It's deliberate - opinion or commentary is banned. There are enough blogs already."
End of Part IV of 7
Read Part III: Introduction To Wikis: How The Web Is Transforming Itself
Next part: Introduction to Podcasting and File Sharing
Originally published as "The Transformation of the Web: How Emerging Communities Shape the Information we Consume", on jucs.org by Josef Kolbitsch (Graz University of Technology, Austria), and Hermann Maurer (Institute for Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria) on August, 2006
About the authors
Josef Kolbitsch holds a PhD in computer science from the Institute of Information Systems and Computer Media, Graz University of Technology, Austria. He has conducted Several projects in the area of web-based database systems, information processing and information management systems for organisations including the Association of Telematic Engineers, the Association of Austrian Business Engineers, Graz University of Technology, and Lebenshilfe Steiermark. In addition he has been the Software trainer and personal technical trainer for Berufsförderungsinstitut Steiermark and Symantec Corporation(Auckland Branch), software license manager for Graz University of Technology, and an honorary research assistant at the Department of Computer Science, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Contact Information: josef.kolbitsch(at)tugraz.at
Hermann Maurer holds a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Vienna. He has been teaching at various universities since 1966, and has been the director of the Research Institute for Applied Information Processing of the Austrian Computer Society 1983-1998; chairman of Institute for Information Processing and Computer Supported New Media since 1988, director of the Institute for Hypermedia Systems of Joannum research since 1990, director of the AWAC (Austrian Web Application Center) of the ARCS (Austrian Research Centers) 1997-2000, member of the board of OCG (Österreische Computergesellschaft) 1979-2003, founder and scientific advisor of the KNOW Center (K+ Center), the first research centre on Knowledge Management in Austria. Since January 2004 Hermann Maurer is the first dean of the newly formed Faculty for Computer Science at the Graz University of Technology.
Contact Information: hmaurer(at)iicm.edu
Josef Kolbitsch and Hermann Maurer -
Photo credits: Thumb up and thumb down - Artsem Martysiuk