Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why Wikipedia Works

If you grew up with a row of Encyclopedia Britannica’s lining your bookshelf (alas, the final print edition was published in 2010), using Wikipedia as a source of information seems counterintuitive. After all, is it really possible for a group of random online strangers to know more about a given topic than experts employed by the world’s most venerable institution of knowledge? The answer is yes, sort of.

The secret of Wikipedia is this: groups are remarkably smart. In fact, they are usually smarter than the smartest person in them. Nowhere is this explained better than in the book “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki. He opens the book with a story about British scientist Francis Galton who, in 1906, attended the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition where he watched 800 people attempt to guess the weight of a fat ox. Out of curiosity, Galton set out to figure out the statistical mean of the group’s guesses and discovered that the crowd guessed that the ox weighed 1,197 pounds. It’s actual weight? 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd was pretty much spot on. Versions of this experiment have been conducted time and again, with results confirming that the crowd will almost always come up with a better answer than the smartest person in that crowd.

For kids who have never heard of Encyclopedia Britannica and who readily turn to Wikipedia as a quick and easy reference for their schoolwork, learning how Wikipedia works, and understanding its strengths and weaknesses, is an important lesson in 21st century literacy. So we spent a couple weeks focusing on this topic during our 7th grade CyberCivics classes at Journey School in Southern California.

We used a lesson from “Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World" from Project New Media Literacies called “Wikipedia: The Group Behind the Screen.” Although designed for students in high school, this lesson was easily adapted for 7th graders as follows:

Every student received a piece of paper with a topic on it, ranging from spaghetti to running shoes. They were asked to list everything they personally knew about that topic. After completing this task, they broke into small groups with other students who had received the same topic. In these small groups students pooled their collective knowledge and corrected each other’s mistakes, finally coming up with a list that turned out to be both more accurate and comprehensive that what they had come up with individually.

Obviously this is a lesson on “collective intelligence” and an excellent student introduction to Wikipedia. A terrific article by scholar Henry Jenkins called, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies”, accompanies this free lesson. In his article Jenkins reminds us,  in a world where many young people are turning to (Wikipedia) as a key source for information, educators need to understand what is going on well enough to offer them meaningful advice and guidance… it is not enough to construct policies restricting the use of Wikipedia as a source if we don’t help foster the skills young people need in order to critically engage with a site which has become so central to their online lives. ” (p. 14).  Hear, hear.

It’s interesting really, that so many educators still perceive Wikipedia negatively. Roy Rosenzweig, director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, conducted an analysis of Wikipedia for The Journal of American History, and though he found the quality of its information inconsistent, he also found that overall Wikipedia is as accurate or more accurate than traditional encyclopedias. In fact, a number of studies, including the landmark early study by the journal Nature, have also found Wikipedia to be as, if not more, reliable and statistically accurate than a traditional encyclopedia.

Of course, if you were a 7th grader, you’d already know this, as did the ones I posed the following question to:

“Which do you think is more reliable: Wikipedia or the old-fashioned encyclopedia?

Their answers?

“Wikipedia, because everything is up-to-date and constantly checked. The old-fashioned encyclopedia is outdated.”

“I think Wikipedia is more reliable because it’s by people like you and me.”

"Wikipedia, because it gets corrected all the time.”

"Wikipedia, because thousands of people are smarter than one person. "

There you have it.  These students, who many consider to be the first of a new generation that has truly grown up in a hyper mediated culture, instinctively know what scholar Pierre Levy wrote before they were even born: “Collective intelligence exploits the potential of network culture to allow many different minds operating in many different contexts to work together to solve problems that are more challenging than any of them could master as individuals.” In such a world, he tells us, "nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any member knows is available to the group as a whole at a moment’s notice" (as cited by Jenkins, p. 22).

That’s not to say that students should be taught to take Wikipedia, or any media source for that matter, at face value. Now, more than ever, young people need to be taught to call on their critical thinking skills to engage in what Harold Rheingold calls “crap detection” - a way to evaluate a source based on the following criteria: Currency, Reliability, Authority and Purpose/Point of View.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s so important to find time for cyber civics, media literacy, digital citizenship, information literacy, or whatever you care to call it, in school. To be a functioning citizen of our new digital world, it’s no longer enough to give the right answer on a bubble test. It requires being able to find and/or produce credible information that everyone can share. Because we are why Wikipedia works.


Clinton, K., et al. "Wikipedia: The Group Behind the Screen." Retrieved from http://newmedialiteracies.org/VI_E_Wikipedia_Our_Space.pdf

Jenkins, H. (2007). "What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies." Retrieved from

Lesson and Article: Wikipedia: The Group Behind the Screen

Levy, Pierre (1997). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Plenum).

Surowiecki , James (2004). The Wisdom of the Crowd. New York: Random House.

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