22 Janvier 2015
Created exactly fourteen years ago, on January, 15th 2001, Wikipedia is a revolutionary means of spreading and gathering information. Several concepts changed the relationship with information that could have people in the past. The very first difference comes from the fact that anyone who can access the site can edit almost any of its articles, as long as they follow the rules, which are in some cases not quite strict. Then, this online encyclopedia is one of the 10 most consulted websites, and the only one which is not commercial. It shows all the importance of its reliability. Indeed, can we trust a website that studies demonstrated that up six in ten articles contained factual errors? That’s all the matter. On the second hand, what does Wikipedia reveals on its contributors? Are they representative of the world diversity? Who are the keepers of Wikipedia processes, who guarantees the truth that emanates from the site? Those questions are essential, because Wikipedia is one of the most visible symbols of soft power, and because it’s fundamental to know what we’re talking about when we focus on information spread in the whole world, through nearly 300 different languages.
We are made aware, thanks to a research led by the Public Relations Journal, that up to six in ten articles on Wikipedia contain at best, inaccuracies, at worst factual errors. Those mistakes are the result of Wikipedia policy which is to be open to the public, read and made by its ‘consumers’, who are also its builders. The foundation encourages each and every single one of use to participate to the data enhancement and enrichment. The positive aspect is precisely that the encyclopedia is the biggest that has never existed on earth. The negative one is that some people (deliberately in some – rare, may we hope – cases, or not) commit mistakes which make our trust decrease regarding the relevance of articles published. One consubstantial problem is that time to react to those mistakes, after they have been detected and complained about, is far too long. The administrators are too solicited and react with some delay – when they do: in fact, one in four complaints never receives any response.
In spite of those errors, Wikipedia does remain one of the most consulted websites: 15% of all internet users visit it every day, amounting to 500m readers a month. One of daily difficulties is to update the site so as to avoid being overwhelmed by reality. A thousand books of a thousand pages each for the English Wikipedia if the project of printing it was carried out may be considered as a powerful and relevant image. What is also at stake recently is the viability of the site without having recourse to advertisement, which would undermine the independence of the site. This option hasn’t been totally rejected, but the later it will be effective, the better. Since the site is not commercial, it isn’t easy to ensure the non-profit’s financial future. The foundation tries to find contributors as well as ‘financers’: it needs that people pay so as to support the costs and the development of the site, and that writers contribute to post articles and to control those who have been published. Some writers / editors behave as if they had a monopoly and welcome harshly newcomers.
Wikipedia’s next challenge is to become more diversified. Actually, a large majority of its contributors is nowadays composed of male, white inhabitants of rich countries, crazy about new technologies – what you can call in colloquial speech ‘geeks’. The reflection that emerges from that observation is that the plurality and diversity of information is far from being attained. As a matter of fact, when it provides from a too homogenous social environment, it can be seen as a vector of a certain ideology, a special point of view not indicative of global information and reality. The idea is then to encourage women, and people who live in Africa, South America and Asia to bring their contribution to the encyclopedia, and of course, to read it more often. What is the question raised by that seemingly noble quest? Can what remains an American firm pretend embody the world diversity in matter of information? Is it possible and desirable? Or are we to consider that information is such a huge data that it is normal that people all around the world trust several sources according to the place they live in, and don’t rely on a unique, US-based, source? I don’t claim I can answer those interrogations, but only underline the importance of raising them.
In a word, we can stress the incredible task accomplished by Wikipedia in terms of development and improvement of the access to information. It should be pointed out that this success is not without causing some problems due to human errors contained in lots of articles and corrected too slowly – when they are. At last, new issues, such as the diversity of contributors and readers pertain to the strategy of Wikipedia in the coming years.