Wikipedia has become a source of reliable information for millions and in an Internet awash with unreliable sourcing, it has become a public good.
Journalism it has been said is the first draft of history, and if you want to find out more about how that popular expression came about, Wikipedia is the first entry that will give you further information.
In many ways, Wikipedia has also become the first draft of history. Its online community of unpaid editors keep it updated just as quick as, if not quicker than, journalists can get their stories out.
As the online encyclopedia turns 20 years old this month, it’s difficult to imagine that somehow the free service continues. It has now become an almost indispensable tool for researchers, students and journalists in addition to other passing users.
Teachers and university professors in the past would often warn or even chastise their students that they could not rely on Wikipedia. Its sources were shoddy or unreliable. It couldn’t be fact-checked they bemoaned. And worse, how could lay, anonymous people, be trusted to write about history, politics, science, medicine, movies and so much more.
Yet now, perhaps secretly, there is likely not one teacher or professor that wouldn’t use the site to look up cursory information, they may be even contributors.
Wikipedia even hosts a page “Wikipedia is not a reliable source,” where the page seeks to address its critics stating that because the site is a volunteer-run project there are bound to be mistakes and that it “should not be considered a definitive source in and of itself.”
Arguably any encyclopedia is a living and evolving body of information and by and large Wikipedia has been a reliable first point of contact.
It is not just in the realm of generalised information that Wikipedia has made its presence felt. Specialised areas of information like medicine have become a useful source of information with its pages viewed billions of times.
In a study looking at Wikipedia's influence in medicine, junior doctors in the US were found to use the site because of its “convenience and access to information that was considered to be better and more up-to-date than what might be available in handbooks and textbooks.”
Another study by the American university of MIT said, "Our research shows that scientists are using Wikipedia and that it is influencing how they write about the science that they are doing. Wikipedia isn't just a record of what's going on in science, it's actually helping to shape science."
More broadly Wikipedia’s rate of accuracy has been evaluated as being comparatively similar to Britannica, the most famous book-based encyclopedia.
So how does Wikipedia work?
As the fourth most visited website globally it is a surprisingly slim operation. Less than 450 people are officially employed by Wikipedia. It’s the army of volunteers that makes the operation viable.
Anyone with an Internet connection can open an account and begin editing. But it’s not always as simple as that.
The length of time someone has been editing creates a system of reward and prominence amongst the online editorial Wikipedia community.
Over the years a 200,000 strong community of editors and ad-hoc contributors have grown to become the guardians of this publicly available repository of information.
Now the site boasts millions of pages in 300 languages and is accessed by more than a billion people every month.
The online encyclopedia has been called the “last best place on the Internet,” and given the polarisation and disinformation that has swamped vast areas of the web the site has withstood the test of time.
It’s supposed weakness, that anyone could edit it, has become its enduring strength and those people now jealously guard it.