Wikipedia, which turns 10 years old this weekend, has taken a lot of heat over the years. There has been repeated criticism of the site’s accuracy, of the so-called “cabal” of editors who decide which changes are accepted and which are not, and of founder Jimmy Wales and various aspects of his personal life and how he manages the non-profit service. But as a Pew Research report released today confirms, Wikipedia has become a crucial aspect of our online lives, and in many ways it has shown us — for better or worse — what all information online is in the process of becoming: social, distributed, interactive and (at times) chaotic.
According to Pew’s research, 53 percent of American Internet users said they regularly look for information on Wikipedia, up from 36 percent of the same group the first time the research center asked the question in February of 2007. Usage by those under the age of 30 is even higher — more than 60 percent of that age group uses the site regularly, compared with just 33 percent of users 65 and older. Based on Pew’s other research, using Wikipedia is more popular than sending instant messages (which less than half of Internet users do), and is only a little less popular than using social networking services, which 61 percent of users do regularly.
The term “wiki” — just like the word “blog,” or the name “Google” for that matter — is one of those words that sounds so ridiculous it was hard to imagine anyone using it with a straight face when Wikipedia first emerged in the early 2000s. But despite a weird name and a confusing interface (which the site has been trying to improve to make it easier to edit things), Wikipedia took off and has become a powerhouse of “crowdsourcing,” before most people had even heard that word. In fact, the idea of a wiki has become so powerful that document-leaking organization WikiLeaks adopted the term even though (as many critics like to point out) it doesn’t really function as a wiki at all.
Most people will never edit a Wikipedia page — like most social media or interactive services, it follows the 90-9-1 rule, which states that 90 percent of users will simply consume the content, 9 percent or so will contribute regularly, and only about 1 percent will ever become dedicated contributors. But even with those kinds of numbers, the site has still seen more than 4 billion individual edits in its lifetime, and has more than 127,000 active users. Those include people like Simon Pulsifer, once known as “the king of Wikipedia” because he edited over 100,000 articles. Why? Because that was his idea of fun, as he explained to me at a web conference.
Yes, there will always be people who decide to edit the Natalie Portman page so that it says she is going to marry them, or create fictional pages about people they dislike. But the surprising thing isn’t that this happens — it’s how rarely it happens, and how quickly those errors are found and corrected.
With Twitter, we are starting to see how a Wikipedia-like approach to information scales even further. As events like the Giffords shooting take hold of the national consciousness, Twitter becomes a real-time news service that anyone can contribute to, and it gradually builds a picture of what has happened and what it means. Along the way, there are errors and all kinds of other noise — but over time, it produces a very real and human view of the news. Is it going to replace newspapers and television and other media? No, just as Wikipedia hasn’t replaced encyclopedias (although it has made them less relevant).
That is the way information works now, and for all their flaws, Wikipedia and Jimmy Wales were among the first to recognize that.