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With little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word “truth.”

Why should we care? Because ­Wikipedia’s articles are the first- or second-ranked results for most Internet searches. Type “iron” into Google, and Wikipedia’s article on the element is the top-ranked result; likewise, its article on the Iron Cross is first when the search words are “iron cross.” Google’s search algorithms rank a story in part by how many times it has been linked to; people are linking to Wikipedia articles a lot.

This means that the content of these articles really matters. Wikipedia’s standards of inclusion–what’s in and what’s not–affect the work of journalists, who routinely read Wikipedia articles and then repeat the wikiclaims as “background” without bothering to cite them. These standards affect students, whose research on many topics starts (and often ends) with Wikipedia. And since I used Wikipedia to research large parts of this article, these standards are affecting you, dear reader, at this very moment.

Many people, especially academic experts, have argued that Wikipedia’s articles can’t be trusted, because they are written and edited by volunteers who have never been vetted. Nevertheless, studies have found that the articles are remarkably accurate. The reason is that Wikipedia’s community of more than seven million registered users has organically evolved a set of policies and procedures for removing untruths. This also explains Wikipedia’s explosive growth: if the stuff in Wikipedia didn’t seem “true enough” to most readers, they wouldn’t keep coming back to the website.

These policies have become the social contract for Wikipedia’s army of apparently insomniac volunteers. Thanks to them, incorrect information generally disappears quite quickly.

So how do the Wikipedians decide what’s true and what’s not? On what is their epistemology based?

Unlike the laws of mathematics or science, wikitruth isn’t based on principles such as consistency or observa­bility. It’s not even based on common sense or firsthand experience. Wikipedia has evolved a radically different set of epistemological standards–standards that aren’t especially surprising given that the site is rooted in a Web-based community, but that should concern those of us who are interested in traditional notions of truth and accuracy. On Wikipedia, objective truth isn’t all that important, actually. What makes a fact or statement fit for inclusion is that it appeared in some other publication–ideally, one that is in English and is available free online. “The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth,” states Wikipedia’s official policy on the subject.

Verifiability is one of Wikipedia’s three core content policies; it was codified back in August 2003. The two others are “no original research” (December 2003) and “neutral point of view,” which the Wikipedia project inherited from Nupedia, an earlier volunteer-written Web-based free encyclopedia that existed from March 2000 to September 2003 (Wikipedia’s own NPOV policy was codified in December 2001). These policies have made Wikipedia a kind of academic agora where people on both sides of politically charged subjects can rationally discuss their positions, find common ground, and unemotionally document their differences. Wikipedia is successful because these policies have worked.

Unlike Wikipedia’s articles, Nupedia’s were written and vetted by experts. But few experts were motivated to contribute. Well, some wanted to write about their own research, but Larry Sanger, Nupedia’s editor in chief, immediately put an end to that practice.

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Credit: Raymond Beisinger

Tagged: Web

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