Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Hwang: Wikipedia is what the internet promised to be

Great sci-fi has the gift of extraordinary prescience, but I wasn’t thinking about that when I first read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I was a middle schooler enthralled by Douglas Adams’ eccentric universe: spaceships that can exist everywhere at once, bureaucratic aliens, a supercomputer that calculates the answer to life, the universe and everything (“42”). 

There’s also the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself, an electronic book containing information about the universe. When the novel was published in 1979, the Guide was simply science fantasy. But when I read the book over three decades later, it felt familiar, perhaps because something like it existed in real life: Wikipedia. 

When you think about it, it’s extraordinary that Wikipedia ever transcended the world of science fiction. It contains as close to the sum total of human knowledge as you’re ever going to get, accessible for free and almost entirely run by volunteers. It runs no ads and relies on donations, yet it competes with trillion-dollar companies in the list of most heavily trafficked websites. If it didn’t already exist, you wouldn’t believe it could. 

I’ve been thinking about how today’s digital landscape shapes our experiences. My opinion is not particularly high. The internet once promised a new level of human flourishing, brought upon by unprecedented efficiency and interconnectedness. But that has not come to fruition. Meanwhile, its cost to our mental health, our attention spans and our social lives are becoming more and more clear.

We once dreamt that technology would bring the possibilities of the universe to our fingertips — the Guide come true. Today, Wikipedia is the last great relic of that early internet promise. If you compare it to most digital institutions today, you can’t help but ask: Where did the rest go wrong?

There are almost seven million pages on Wikipedia in English alone, and almost sixty million total. You can read about anything from the pronunciation of GIF to banana production in Iceland to the British Rail sandwich (“a culinary match to the quality of the train service”). There are pages that list helicopter prison escapes and sexually active popes, not to mention the list of unusual Wikipedia articles from which I found these examples –– or the wonderfully recursive list of lists of lists.

Those millions of pages are written and updated by over 100,000 registered editors in any given month, with most edits coming from a small fraction of that group. Yes, Wikipedia has been criticized for inaccuracy as a consequence of its open-source model. Every student is taught not to cite Wikipedia, and even Wikipedia does not allow its contributors to cite other Wikipedia pages when making edits. 

But recently, it seems the consensus has shifted to emphasize the benefits of Wikipedia’s crowdsourcing model. While false edits can be made by anyone, they rarely stay up for long, subject to the scrutiny of potentially thousands of reviewers. Over the years, the site has only become more accurate, and you can always check a page’s footnotes to figure out where a piece of information came from. 

Contrast that with the state of internet information as a whole. Half of Americans get at least some news from social media, according to Pew Research Center. The information people consume on these platforms is becoming increasingly polarized and misleading for multiple reasons. One is algorithmic –– as platforms recommend content chosen to get a reaction out of the viewer. The other is psychological: people tend to prefer social media communities that conform to their worldviews. 

Wikipedia has neither of these problems. It has no algorithm — you have to navigate to what you’re looking for on your own. And, there is no room for separate communities in disagreement. For any given topic, there is only one Wikipedia article, subject to a strict standard of neutrality. 

Beyond merely ensuring that opinions are not given as facts, the standard encourages editors to add context to counter bias, as opposed to reducing information. It also requires that consensus views be given more weight than widely disputed, individual views. This avoids the issue of, for example, a single climate change denier disputing a scientific consensus that climate change is real. 

These standards are prime examples of Wikipedia’s responsible governance, enforced by a democratic process. Anyone can make changes, which means those changes are subjected to the scrutiny of many reviewers who can appeal to Wikipedia’s published policies. Disagreements on policy and fact are resolved not from higher ups, but from community discussions on talk pages. 

It is, I must admit, shocking that this model works. Most of the internet does not work in this way. Platforms like Facebook and X have recently come under public scrutiny for promoting misinformation and harmful content. But, barring new laws or immense public pressure, these for-profit companies don’t need to apply strict standards to their content. At Wikipedia, strict standards are the norm.

And Wikipedia’s lack of advertising is almost more unusual. Most major internet sites like Facebook and Google make money by showing you advertisements. That’s why websites collect your data: to figure out what ads will make you buy things. 

But this model was not inevitable. At the turn of the century, Google considered other monetization models, including paid subscriptions and licensing. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were even against ads at first, believing they would bias search engines “away from the needs of consumers.” 

Without ads, is Wikipedia designed for the needs of consumers? Certainly many people find it useful. But part of what makes it wonderful is that many of its designers, the hundreds of thousands of hobbyists who write and edit and add footnotes to the millions of pages, aren’t doing it to appeal to any reader in particular beyond themselves. That eccentricity is why I can find a different page for “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series, novel, TV series, film and video game, not to mention the page on the fictional in-universe book. 

I’m not sure there is an answer to life, the universe and everything. But when someone figures it out, I’ll know where to find it — and you can bet there’ll be footnotes.

Scott Hwang is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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