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Column: Wikipedia needs students’ help to sustain independence

Mara Somlo

Dec. 4, 2012

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Let’s admit it. Where would we be without Wikipedia?

Known as “the lifesaver” in terms of writing paper and “unscholarly” when referenced by professors, it is a universally viewed website among college students.

We have been lectured on using the website with threats that the information might not be credible, but I have yet to find a scholarly article that has proven a majority of the website’s facts incorrect. It should be acceptable to use as a background source to gain information about the subject. For further research, students opt for the academic sources written strictly by experts of the topic.

But it is handy. Though the university library system has plenty of resources for higher knowledge, they are not easily at our fingertips. Sure, resources are sorted by book codes, alphabetically and by genre, but most of us don’t have the time to truck to Ellis Library for our everyday, not-so-inquisitive questions.

As of July 2011, Wikipedia ranked No. 5 on Google’s list of most frequently viewed websites, which it compiled after analyzing data from Google Toolbar. Wikipedia accounts for 450 million monthly users.

Of the top 10 sites, Wikipedia is the only one without advertising. Its promise to not run ads has put the website in a financial predicament, even though the public has consistently ranked it among the top websites. So, the Wikimedia Foundation, which runs Wikipedia and its sister sites, recently chose to publish a message to its readers describing its tough situation, which puts us in a tough situation.

Because Wikipedia does not run ads or accept government funds, the Wikimedia Foundation must rely on donations to run the website. It has asked Wikipedia users to donate $5 each. If everyone did, the website's costs would be paid for in an hour.

Like all websites, Wikipedia has a fee to pay. We forget even though Internet access is free, there’s a price to connect to servers, get power, rent space, download programs, train a staff and cover legal fees.

The circumstances are difficult because $5 seems like a lot of money to pay per person, especially when we have access to the same information for free elsewhere. But most of us can agree there is not a close substitute for its accessibility. The message also raises some questions.

Is any “scholarly” article completely without bias? If the answer is no, then perhaps Wikipedia should take on advertising, which it has previously avoided to remain independent.

As a nonprofit organization, the Wikimedia Foundation must have plans in case its campaign for donations results in additional revenue. Because it is not allowed to disperse the money through profit or dividends, the extra money needs to go toward growing the company and ensuring sustainability. The foundation has yet to comment on such plans.

But that is only if it can gather enough donations. What if it can’t? What if no matter how much of a demand we have for a resource like Wikipedia, society doesn’t find it a necessity? Will it disappear?

In order for a non-advertising website such as Wikipedia to stay alive in today’s competitive field, it needs to adapt and maintain the same credibility it holds today.

Wikipedia is co-operated by volunteers throughout the world, with nearly 100,000 active contributors. However, one does not need to be an active contributor to edit many of the articles on the website.

Its website states, “By default, an edit to an article becomes available immediately, prior to any review. As such, an article may contain inaccuracies, ideological biases, or even patent nonsense, until or unless another editor corrects the problem.”

Though I would argue the volunteers are doing a pretty good job checking for vandalism (defined by Wikipedia as written obscenities, inappropriate commentary, diction indicative of advertising and intentionally written implausible information), changing the editing to a more resistant setting could further establish the reliability of the site. With more reliability comes more support from both governmental and educational institutions, which could grant larger donations to the foundation.

Students must show there is still a demand — that even with alternative sources to retrieve information, Wikipedia offers something unique to the Internet. And with that, if push comes to shove, we may have to respond to their call for the sake of free, quickly accessible information.

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Article comments

Dec. 4, 2012 at 12:10 p.m.

Andreas Kolbe: Dear Mara, in fact, the Wikimedia Foundation is swimming in money. Please have a look at the table here, given in Wikipedia itself: You will see that last year, Wikimedia took more than twelve times as much money as they did five years ago. At the end of their financial year, they had cash reserves way in excess of $25 million. In 2006/2007, the Wikimedia Foundation ran on an annual budget of under $3 million, and Wikipedia was already at least half the size it is now. The fact is that all the money that is being collected is not being used to keep Wikipedia up and running, but to expand the Wikimedia Foundation, and pay the salaries of an ever increasing number of employees and contractors. Staff levels have increased from less than 10 to about 150. The actual costs of hosting Wikipedia are less than a tenth of the budget, and Wikipedia itself is written by unpaid volunteers, who do not benefit from the Wikimedia Foundation fundraising drive. So we should be clear what the donations will be used for: they will not be used to keep Wikipedia up, or to write Wikipedia content, but to fund Wikimedia employees' salaries, and the programs they are engaged in. You may consider these programs and paid staff worthwhile, but Wikipedia ran fine without them until a few years ago.

Dec. 4, 2012 at 12:27 p.m.

maria: Yet another meaningless PR about wikipedia. But to answer your question we, and students in particular will be much better off without wikipedia.

Dec. 4, 2012 at 2:56 p.m.

Gregory Kohs: It would appear that Ms. Somlo has never once looked at a Form 990 to understand whether or not an organization is actually in a "financial predicament", or whether the organization is pretending to be in a "financial predicament". One hopes that with a college education under her belt, she will grow and mature into a journalist with more discriminating analytic skills.

Dec. 5, 2012 at 3:21 a.m.

Sterling Ericsson: Apologies, Mara, but as the comments above show, you've caught the attention of the people at Wikipediocracy. They spend all their time criticizing Wikipedia (Mr. Kohs has a competing website, so his is more of a monetarily based criticism) and comment on pretty much any news article or blog that is positive about Wikipedia. Just consider it a compliment, as they've also gone after journalists, academics, you name it. Essentially, they feel that everyone who thinks Wikipedia is good is wrong, regardless of why the person feels that way. P.S. It also appears that one of them has emailed a number of people on The ManEater's editorial board saying you're wrong. Not surprising, these are the kind of tactics that they use.

Dec. 6, 2012 at 11:21 a.m.

Maria: I would still like to stop on the question you started your article with: "Where would we be without Wikipedia? " Even, if we do not take into account that Wikipedia itself does not consider Wikipedia to be a reliable source, but I am not sure Albert Einstein would have been Albert Einstein, if he used Wikipedia. Don't you understand that Wikipedia is preventing students from doing research and from thinking independently? I am absolutely sure that the students who mostly use Wikipedia for their studies will be much less successful in their careers.

Dec. 6, 2012 at 3:49 p.m.

Jake: I do not mean to jump onto the Wikipedia bandwagon but it has its uses. Prior to me going to the library and researching any topic I typically read Wikipedia articles that are relevant to the issue. This can help me become more familiar with the topic in an informal way. It can also alert me to what has already been discussed (considered fact) and can help guide me in my original research. Obviously I do not base any of my arguments on Wikipedia but I can at least see multiple viewpoints before I write mine. So I am curious Maria, how does reading Wikipedia to gain knowledge in an informal way actually prevent me from thinking independently? I cannot speak for Albert Einstein but I would imagine him as a man who would consider all mediums through which knowledge can be gained (conventional and unconventional) and not deny knowledge. So let me clarify before everyone hates on me…Do I agree that Wikipedia needs more money – No. Do I agree that Wikipedia can be factually wrong on many accounts – Yes. Do I think that Wikipedia can encourage students to read something that they might not normally read and spark an interest in a new topic – Yes. Sorry Maria, you fall into the same category of people throughout history who have burned books because of ideology, race, or creed. You deny the value of knowledge because Wikipedia does not fit into your delusional ideology of what constitutes a viable medium through which knowledge can be derived.

Dec. 6, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.

Sterling Ericsson: @Maria: You imply that getting any information whatsoever from a place that isn't a book is going to make people less successful. Wikipedia is the perfect starting place for research, because it gives an overview of a topic and, even for contentious topics, allows you to see where the competing viewpoints must be. And then it has a very convenient list of references that one can comb through for use. Is it really Wikipedia that you're against or the internet as a whole?

Dec. 6, 2012 at 8:28 p.m.

Maria: @Jake:The idiotic conclusion you came up with clearly demonstrates that you've read too much of Wikipedia. @Sterling Ericsson:Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that any one could edit, which means that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that any one could vandalize. No Wikipedia article is reliable at any given time. Could you name any encyclopedia but Wikipedia that cannot be trusted? Almost every week there's a story about people who found themselves in a stupid situations because they trusted Wikipedia. This week is not different. Have you read this article ? Yes, Wikipedia provides references, and it is all that is needed, maybe just a very short overview of a topic and references, and not POV articles, and not vandalized articles, and no articles about not notable persons who write articles about themselves to promote themselves. Wikipedia as it is now has became a powerful weapon that could influence politics, that could defame a person and destroy his health and so on. Many dishonest people use Wikipedia entries to fight their real life enemies.You probably know "The tale of Mr Hari and Dr Rose" No encyclopedia should have such power as Wikipedia does. An encyclopedia should be a place for a learning, and for getting references, and not for a fighting.

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